Defense has been the foundation of Wilde Lake's success over the years, and with the season hanging in the fourth quarter of yesterday's Class 1A semifinal against visiting Easton, the Wildecats' defense took center stage one more time.
After being stung by Easton quarterback Chris Blue for two touchdown passes, Wilde Lake forced three fourth-quarter turnovers that turned a precarious 21-14 lead into a 35-14 victory.
The victory sends Wilde Lake (11-1) to College Park, where it will go after its third consecutive state championship Friday against Cambridge-South Dorchester at 4 p.m.
The Wildecats never trailed, yet they could not shake the stubborn Warriors (10-2) until crunch time. Trailing 21-14 early in the fourth period, Easton had the ball on its 36, when Wilde Lake's Mike Green made the game's pivotal play.
On second-and-six, Blue dropped back to pass. Green rushed )) into Easton's backfield untouched, hit Blue from his blind side and knocked the ball loose. Nate Cassella recovered the fumble at Easton's 18, then scored an 18-yard touchdown on the next play to give Wilde Lake a 28-14 lead with 10 minutes left.
"I was so close to him a couple of times, but I couldn't get a good angle on the quarterback [Blue] all day. We hadn't sacked him all day," Green said.
After Green -- who also rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns -- made his big defensive play, linebacker Paul Knox provided the encores. Knox, playing for the second straight week after missing two months with a forearm fracture, intercepted Blue on the next two Easton possessions. Following the second pickoff, Cassella finished the scoring on a 1-yard run with 2:39 left to seal Wilde Lake's ninth straight victory.
"I thought all along that we could play with them [Wilde Lake]," said Easton coach Ted Johnson, whose Warriors looked nothing like the team Wilde Lake trounced, 43-7, in last year's playoffs. "It's just a matter of not making mistakes. They're a good football team, because they take advantage of them."
"That's the sign of a good team," Wilde Lake coach Doug DuVall said. "That's what they've done for 20 years. When the going gets tough, they know they've got to reach back."
The Wildecats, who did not attempt a pass, pounded the Warriors by rushing 50 times for 280 yards, including 200 in the first half. Cassella led all rushers with 153 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Seth Willingham rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Blue gave the Wildecats trouble rushing (nine carries, 46 yards) and passing (7-for-16 yards, 106 yards, 2 touchdowns). He teamed up with wide receiver Curtis Chase five times for 70 yards and both scores. Wilde Lake's defense had allowed just one touchdown in its last eight games.
The Warriors sent an early message that they would not go quietly. The Wildecats opened sharply with a 14-play, 52-yard drive that consumed seven minutes and ended with Green's 3-yard touchdown run.
Easton answered quickly with a five-play, 70-yard march. After J. P. Morgan (12 carries, 63 yards) ran 21 yards to the Wilde Lake 40, Chase burned cornerback Craig Butler and caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Blue. Blue was tackled just short of the goal line on a two-point run attempt, leaving Wilde Lake with a 7-6 lead with 1:55 left in the first quarter.
The Wildecats increased their lead midway through the second period. On a third-and-four at Wilde Lake's 22, Cassella broke off a 70-yard run to the Easton 8. Two plays later, Green scored from the 2. Willingham's kick made it 14-6 with 5:41 left in the half.
The Wildecats drove 51 yards in six plays on their next possession. Willingham capped the drive with an 11-yard run that gave the Wildecats a seemingly comfortable 21-6 advantage at halftime.
But the Warriors took the second-half kickoff and marched 78 yards in a drive that featured an 11-yard screen pass to Morgan, a 10-yarder to Chase, and a 22-yard touchdown to Chase on a slant-in pattern that pulled Easton to within 21-14 with 6:47 left in the third period.
At that point, Easton had not committed a turnover. Wilde Lake's defense would soon change that.