The weaknesses in the film Manatee High School can watch from last year’s playoff game against Orlando Dr. Phillips are still jarring.
It wasn’t hard for Dr. Phillips to line up in a tight offensive formation and go right up the middle, through the heart of the Hurricanes’ defense and into their secondary. It’s obvious to the Canes, so Garrett Ware knows it will be obvious to the Panthers, too.
The starters from last year’s defensive line are gone, as are most of the linebackers who were next in line to stop the Panthers’ three-pronged rushing attack.
“They’re probably looking at that film,” said Ware, Manatee’s lone returning starter in the front seven. “They’re thinking, Yeah, we can probably do that again.”
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The senior linebacker is trying to share some of his experience with an otherwise inexperienced Hurricane defense. Eight starters from last year — all of whom were at least All-Area honorable mentions last fall — have graduated. The onus for success has been placed on Ware, and defensive backs Sir Williams and Jacob Main. And the three know the Canes’ defense will have to be near their best against Dr. Phillips’ prolific offense at Bill Spoone Stadium in Orlando. Game time is 7:30 p.m. Friday.
In 10 games this season, the Panthers (8-2) have put up 363 points while allowing 100. Manatee’s offense, which averages more than 41 points a game, has done its part. Its defense will have to do enough to keep the Hurricanes (7-3) within range.
“It’s going to be one of the hardest games we play,” said Seth Walter, who will start at defensive end for the Canes in the Class 8A-Region 2 quarterfinals. “We’ve just got to play physical.”
Walter’s addition to the defense is the one wrinkle Manatee hopes can elevate its defense against Dr. Phillips. Walter, who starts at guard and makes occasional appearances as a tight end, has played some defensive line in every game this year as an end in the 3-4 alignment. Before the Hurricanes’ regular season-ending 42-24 win against Southeast, the Canes switched to a 4-3 to prepare for the Panthers’ run-heavy attack. A bulkier defensive front, Manatee hopes, will prevent a result similar to last year’s.
I think sometimes we get a little excited and try to do too much as a defense. We try to do other people's jobs, me included.
Garrett Ware, Manatee linebacker
Defending Dr. Phillips, however, could be more complex this year. The Panthers lean heavily on their running game and finished with three 100-yard rushers while beating the Hurricanes last year. But ex-quarterback Emare Hogan is at wide receiver, and new quarterback Marvin Washington is a dual threat.
“We’re trying to put a little bit more up in the front and force them to pass,” Ware said. “But they’ve got some athletes, for sure.”
There have been some gems for the Canes — like their shutout win against Tampa Alonso or holding Palmetto to three points — but some duds, too. Hewitt-Trussville opened the season by hanging 78 on the Canes in Trussville, Ala. Two weeks later, Venice dropped 42. The Hurricanes have allowed at least 41 points four times.
The solution to a more consistent defense probably lies within one of Manatee’s best outings. Ware looks specifically at the Hurricanes’ win against Riverview last month, one week after Manatee’s district-title hopes effectively ended with a loss to Sarasota Riverview.
“We were blitzing ourselves out of position,” head coach Booth said.
The Hurricanes’ defensive deficiencies often came in the form of massive plays, sometimes spanning more than half the field. Against the Sharks, the Canes shifted to a 4-4 and cut back on blitzing. With less room for breakdowns in the box, Manatee held the Sharks to 14 points.
“We kind of slow it down; we kind of relax a little bit,” Ware said. “I think that’s when we have our best performances.”