Defense, special teams strive to be difference makers

Ethan Zieglowsky (18) jumps in front of Fort Madison's Calem Mclearn to intercept this pass Friday at Case Field in Washington's 29-7 win. (Chuck Vandenberg/Pen City Current)
Ethan Zieglowsky (18) jumps in front of Fort Madison's Calem Mclearn to intercept this pass Friday at Case Field in Washington's 29-7 win. (Chuck Vandenberg/Pen City Current)

WASHINGTON — Everybody loves offense which creates statistics so people can quantify who is better than someone else. Defense and special teams do not provide the plethora of stats and become an often-overlooked part of a football program.

In Friday’s 29-7 victory over Fort Madison, Washington showed the difference defense and special teams can have. A punt return set up a touchdown one second before halftime. An interception was returned for a touchdown and two others ended threats. Wilx Witthoft made a difference when he scored a safety with a sack on the third play of the game. Lucas Kroll caused a fumble that led to a 21-0 lead.

“Wilx is gamer,” Washington head coach James Harris said. “He uses his hands very well up front, is comfortable playing in space, and plays behind his pads. He is a physical football player who plays with passion.”

Harris stressed special teams in practice and backed up his faith by calling a timeout at the end of the first half to set up a punt return. Jacob Miller took the kick from midfield to the 14-yard line and the Demons scored on the next play as one big play led to another.

“As far as special teams are concerned, I like the Bill Belichick quote, ‘Special teams set the physical tone for the football game as well create opportunities for big plays,’” Harris said. “We thought we could get a punt return against Fort Madison, but it comes down to the other ten guys doing their jobs rushing and holding up blocks, so the returner can do his.”

Washington’s defense did its job, using film study to prepare for Fort Madison’s offense. FM had drove 35 yards into Demon territory when Ethan Zieglowsky pilfered a throw and took the interception into the end zone for a 29-0 Washington lead. Zieglowsky said 12 hours of watching film enabled him to know how the receiver would run his route. He snagged another one, again after FM had picked up a first down in Demon territory. Spencer Sotelo picked one off to get the ball back after a Demon fumble.

Zieglowsky and Sotelo each have two interceptions this season, which ties them with Brevin Wilson and Chase Williamson of Mt. Pleasant among others for the third-best season total in Class 3A. Fairfield’s Aiden Lyons and Tate Richardson each have one pick. Fort Madison’s Will Larson is tied for the most interceptions with four, after clutching one of Washington’s throws Friday. Wilson has 70 return yards on his two INTs, which is fourth in 3A. Zieglowsky’s pick-six went 52 yards, which would be ninth.

Williamson is third in 3A with nine kickoff returns and his yards total of 227 is second. Miller has four for 88, Lyons has four for 90 and Trojans teammate Cohen Roach has four for 78.

Miller’s return yardage on punts totals 104, which is first in Class 3A. That is an average of 26 yards per return which is fifth. Mt. Pleasant’s Chase Williamson is tied for ninth with 45 yards on three returns. His average is 15 per, which is tied for 14th. Sotelo has three for 18. Miller is tied for fifth in number of punt returns with four and Sotelo is tied for ninth with three. Lyons has two.

“We think special teams are very important,” Harris said. “I feel both our returners, Jacob Miller and Spencer Sotelo, are dynamic open field athletes. Trying to give them the opportunity to get the ball in space and use their speed is important.”

Special teams play is much more than just running down the field. Defense is much more than just tackling. There is technique involved, toughness, a specific skill set that involves the ability to accelerate, decelerate, use one’s hands and run through contact.

Football is a game of contact and those that can run through it better than others will be more successful.