East Xtra: Woody High relying on its strong 'D'

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George Novak couldn't help but give the defensive unit of his Woodland Hills football team a little extra credit after the Wolverines knocked off Seneca Valley last Friday in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

"We won that game because of our defense," the longtime Woodland Hills coach said. "Seneca Valley is a very good and tough opponent, which makes them tough to predict.

"We did a lot defensively well against them."

The Woodland Hills defense shut down three red-zone attempts by the Raiders in the first half as well as picked off quarterback T.J. Holl four times, including returning two for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, which propelled the Wolverines to a 28-14 win.

The victory also puts No. 4 seed Woodland Hills (9-2) back into the Class AAAA semifinals for the fourth time in five years.

The Wolverines will face top seed Upper St. Clair (11-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Baldwin High School.

"We're in the point of the season where it's a marathon and only the strong survive," Novak said. "Upper St. Clair is an outstanding team. They are senior-oriented and have been good all season.

"Both teams have improved since that first game, so we're going to have to see what happens."

Novak has especially taken note of the overall improvement his defensive unit has displayed since Woodland Hills opened its season with back-to-back losses against Upper St. Clair and McKeesport, respectively.

"All of our guys on defense have developed all season," Novak said. "They've learned their positions well. We've also had guys step up when others went down with injuries. That happens to every team, so we've had that next-guy-in attitude to get the job done.

"There's a lot of preparation that goes into it. A lot of that is mental, and the mental aspect has been shown every game because they've been able to pick up on everything."

According to Novak, depending on the opponent, the Wolverines feature a handful of different defensive schemes and rotate a variety of players in different positions.

"Our guys have learned to play multiple positions and multiple defensive fronts," Novak said. "We have a lot of speed, which helps with gap control. They've been one unit putting pressure on the ball."

Devin Nixon and Akira McClean, though, are usually lined up as defensive ends with James Eggleston, Kevin Soloman, Wilford Clark and Dan Gibson playing on the line. Daechaud Ausbrooks, Donte Broadus and De'Zuan Brown usually play the linebacker positions, while Trevon Mathis, Mike Nash, Chris David, Art Thompkins, Jihad Brown and Harry Randall each play roles in the Wolverines secondary.

Broadus and Jihad Brown both scored defensive touchdowns against Seneca Valley. Broadus scored on a 55-yard interception return, while Jahid Brown followed up with a 100-yard return.

"What has been pretty special about our defense is that we don't have any super stars," Novak said. "We get 11 guys out there who work together as one.

"If someone makes a mistake, someone else will pick them right back up. They all contain well, have speed and are able to display a lot of different coverages."

The 33 points Woodland Hills gave up against McKeesport in Week 2 are the most points the Wolverines have allowed all season. They posted shutout victories against Plum and Canon-McMillan in the regular season and are allowing an average of just 7.3 points in their past five games.

"The one thing this year in Quad-A is that we've seen so many different teams with different offenses," Novak said. "We've seen a lot of different offensive schemes and philosophies. We played McKeesport and their flexbone offense and saw another three or four teams that spread the ball around.

"We've seen quick passes, bubble passes, no huddle offenses; just about everything. That can make it difficult to adjust to, but our guys have been able to adjust well all season."

Besides making weekly adjustments, Novak credits the fact that his team's defense has helped guide Woodland Hills through the playoffs and back into the WPIAL semifinals.

"The best defenses can respond and react," Novak said. "When you read an offense and make the right reaction to respond, you're going to be very successful.

"We want our defense to remain in that category with other great defensive teams. We may have given up leads at times this season, but we worked as a group to win back games."

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