BRADENTON -- IMG's offense has been one of the most prolific in the country this year, averaging more than 40 points a game and most of the time a running clock kicked in early in the second half with the bench emptying not much later.
Until a Sept. 19 trip to Oradell, N.J., to face Bergen Catholic, the Ascenders' defense had been nearly as impressive. In its first three games, IMG hadn't let an opponent reach 30. That Saturday in New Jersey, however, was a shootout. Both teams comfortably cracked 40 and the Ascenders pulled out a 12-point win.
Two weeks later, IMG welcomed the top team from New Jersey to IMG Academy Field. Montvale's St. Joseph Regional is a polar opposite from the Crusaders, boasting one of the nation's best defenses. This was a chance for the Ascenders to prove they could win with defense and they delivered, holding off St. Joseph for a 24-12 win Friday.
"I feel like our defense is underrated," said Bryce Beard, who had two interceptions for IMG. "Nobody really talks about our defense. There's a lot of hype on the offense, there's a lot of stars on the offense, but when we come together, man, we shut people down."
IMG (5-0) forced three turnovers Friday and held the Green Knights (4-1) to three points in the first half. When SJR finally broke through for its only touchdown in the second half, it ate up nearly eight minutes with a 17-play drive.
This was what St. Joseph wanted to do, but it was unable to until time became precious. The Green Knights' first two drives were three-and-outs. Their next one ended in Ascender territory with Beard's first interception of the game. Their fourth led to another punt.
Even when SJR was gifted a possession at IMG's 5-yard line on Shea Patterson's second interception of the season, an illegal substitution limited St. Joseph to a field goal.
"We got off schedule a couple times and getting off schedule against a team like this kills you," Green Knights head coach Augie Hoffman said. "We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish in the second half and that was the game plan in the first half, too. We just couldn't get it done."
The first time SJR moved the ball the way it wanted came on its first possession of the second half. St. Joseph ran the ball six times to move from its own 45 into the red zone. The Green Knights eventually settled for a field goal to cut the Ascenders' lead to 10-6.
IMG answered with two plays. Drake Davis brought a kick return from the goal line to SJR's 26. On the first play from scrimmage, Emmanuel Greene took an end-around to the left and cut back across the field to the right sideline for a 26-yard touchdown run.
"We weren't very efficient in the first half," head coach Kevin Wright said. "They're rangy and tall. Everyone knocks balls down and got us a little out of sync."
The Ascenders scored all three of their touchdowns on the ground - Tony Jones Jr. ran in the other two - as Patterson threw his first two picks of the season. In the first half there were more turnovers (five) than scoring plays (three).
St. Joseph answered IMG's touchdown with its only touchdown and eight plays later the Ascenders were back in the end zone to stretch the lead to 24-12. St. Joseph needed to score two touchdowns in 7:42.
The ground-and-pound Green Knights were forced to throw and Beard came away with his second interception of the game - his team-leading third of the season - to seal IMG's victory.
As the cornerback walked to the locker room after the game, teammate Cesar Ruiz sprinted his way. The center shoved his helmet into Beard's chest and joked he wanted the athlete to sign it. Beard whipped out an invisible Sharpie and scrawled his name on the helmet for the offensive lineman, who giggled as he jogged away.
"I feel like our defense is really coming together," Beard said. "We're gonna be scary by the end of the year."