Anyone looking for some deep, dark secret behind the Howard football team's defensive success won't find anything glaringly spectacular in the Lions' game plan.
They simply excel at the fundamentals, keep things basic and trust each other. Nothing fancy, just a blueprint for success — and for their first trip to the state semifinals in 15 years.
At 12-0, the No. 5 Lions are the only undefeated team in the Class 4A state semifinals and they are certainly the stingiest. They've given up just 61 points, an average of 5.1 per game. They've shut out five opponents and have allowed only two to score more than one touchdown. In their past six games, they've allowed 17 points.
"They're real solid in every phase," said Perry Hall coach Keith Robinson, whose team fell to the Lions, 28-7, in the region semifinals after beating them in the playoffs last season.
"They reminded us a lot of the Urbana team that we played in the playoffs (in 2010 when Urbana went on to win the state championship). They're really good up front, they have good linebacker play and they have athletes in the secondary. They really have no weaknesses."
With hard-working, disciplined players, Howard coach Bruce Strunk and defensive coordinator Jon Pieper have built an aggressive defense that Pieper calls "very vanilla."
"Some teams blitz themselves out of games," Strunk said. "They try to do something special here and there. There's no secret: Just play basic football, block, tackle and run, so they say, and you'll be successful at it. Our kids do a great job of that. They know where to line up, they get off the ball and most of the time they tackle well."
In the 39-7 region final victory over Paint Branch, the Lions sacked the Panthers' quarterback 12 times. Defensive tackle Saif Bryant had five sacks and defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere III had three.
DeLattiboudere, the Lions' best player and emotional leader, said the defense considered changing a few things to throw the Panthers off that night.
"We were going to start running some stunts. We were going to start getting funky with it," DeLattiboudere said, "but before the game even started, some of the defensive guys got together and said, 'Look, if we go out there in base and we just fire off and give these guys the living heck, then we're going to be able to tear them up,' and that's exactly what happened. The linebackers started filling gaps, I was rushing up off the edge, Saif and Craig (Brauer) were doing their jobs. Max (O'Donnell) was rushing up on the edge."
DeLattiboudere has 17.5 sacks and cornerback Christian Dargan has 12 interceptions, but the Lions can get a big play from anyone on any night. Still, they excel as a unit. A tight group that hangs out together off the field, the Lions are constantly talking to each other on the field.
"It's the epitome of a team defense," said Strunk, whose group has 44.5 sacks, 19 interceptions and 126 tackles for a loss.
"We've just been playing like a family," Dargan said. "Every time you run the ball, every time you pass the ball, you know you're going to get hit by 11 people. Everybody's swarming to the ball."
All but three of their key players are seniors — DeLattiboudere, Dargan, Bryant, defensive tackle Brauer, defensive end O'Donnell, cornerback Jamil Campbell II, safeties Isaiah Stokes and Keenan Fischer and linebackers Shane Kieta and Nick Saunders. Linebackers Vanden Vale and Zack Robinson are juniors and corner Bryson Craven is a sophomore.
They're not big. DeLattiboudere, at 6-feet-3, is the only player on the line over 6-feet tall, and that will present a challenge against their semifinal opponent, No. 2 Old Mill (10-2). The Patriots offensive line has the edge in size and has come together to drive a 10-game winning streak and help Old Mill avenge both regular season losses in the playoffs with wins over then-No. 1 Broadneck and then-No. 5 Arundel.
The Lions, however, are used to challenges, something DeLattiboudere epitomized when he overcame a short bout with pneumonia that was discovered after he got sick during the regular-season finale. He had a 102-degree fever that night and spent the evening in the hospital but was back on the field by Wednesday's practice.
The Lions heard lots of talk about how they weren't good enough to win the Howard County championship. Then they heard the same about the region championship. Now, they're hearing the same about states.
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Howard hasn't been to the state semifinals since 1999 and won its only title in 1974, so the Lions know they're not a familiar face at this point in the season the way some others are, including Old Mill, which won championships in 2009 and 2011, and Northwest, which won last year.
They always consider themselves the underdogs.
"We play with a chip on our shoulder," DeLattiboudere said. "We have the mentality that we're not going to back down from anybody. We're not the biggest defense — you can see how we match up in size with Old Mill — but we play with aggression and we play with heart and, most of all, we protect each other."