GREENVILLE — Everyone loves to rave about the prolific offense that the Riverheads Gladiators use to pummel the opposition, but defense hasn’t taken a backseat to anyone in 2019.
The Gladiators’ defense put on a magnificent display Friday night, holding Sussex Central to negative yardage, while the offense was its dominating self as Riverheads crushed the Tigers 46-0 to win the Region 1B championship for the fifth straight year.
The Gladiators have now outscored their 13 opponents 623-126, including 150-6 in three postseason contests. The most points Riverheads has given up in a single game this season came twice at 21 when Class 2 Glenvar and Class 3 Skyline each hit that number.
Riverheads had to replace nine starters on defense, but one wouldn’t know it by the way they are swarming to the ball and disrupting offenses. The Gladiators held the Tigers to minus 12 yards of total offense and just one first down, which came late in the third quarter after the outcome had long been decided. The defense put an exclamation point on the shellacking when Aidan Miller sacked Sussex quarterback Tyree Rose in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter.
“They are starting to understand what they are doing,” said Riverheads head coach Robert Casto of the defense. “We were putting 11 hats on the ball tonight and reading their keys. Our position coaches did a great job getting everyone in the right spots to excel.”
But Casto doesn’t concern himself with defensive numbers.
“We spend zero time on numbers,” he said. “We don’t talk about them. We play our assignments and see what happens.”
While the defense was putting on a mind-numbing performance, the offense was its usual workmanlike machine. Zac Smiley once again led the ground crusade with 119 yards on 17 carries, and had four short TD scampers. All told, the Gladiators rushed for 251 yards and had 293 yards of total offense.
“The offense made the plays when they had to be made,” Casto said. “Overall it just was a solid effort again both ways.”
The Gladiators now await the winner of Saturday’s Region 1A championship between Rappahannock and Essex for a Class 1 state semifinal clash, which will be played Dec. 7 in Greenville. The kickoff time is scheduled for 1 p.m. If Essex advances, it will be a rematch from last season, which Riverheads won 28-6 when the Gladiators hosted their first-ever state semifinal.
“It’s big not to have to get on the bus,” Casto said.
Riverheads’ 24th consecutive win leaves the Gladiators one shy of tying the school record, which was set bridging the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Riverheads and Sussex Central had met twice in the playoffs before Friday, and the Gladiators won both. The first time came at Sussex in the 2006 Group A, Division 1 state semifinals 24-14, and then in the 2016 Class 1 championship 49-6 after the Tigers had taken 6-0 lead. That victory in 2016 started the Gladiators on their current run of three straight state championships.
All of Riverheads’ first-half points came thanks to short fields given the offense by the defense. The touchdown drives started at the 48, 42 and 40, while the field goal commenced at the 45, but stalled after back-to-back penalties, the last one nullifying a TD.
Sussex’s defense stopped Riverheads’ first possession on downs at the Tigers’ 40, but that was the last time in the first half.
The Gladiators’ second possession started at the Tigers’ 48 and was helped along by a chop block, which placed the ball at the 18. Five plays later, quarterback Elijah Dunlap bulled over from the 1 with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Riverheads shot itself in the foot with penalties that kept the Gladiators from going up by two touchdowns. With the ball at the 7, a procedure penalty moved the ball back to 12.
Miller appeared to score on the next play, but a holding flag waved off the score, moving the ball to the 23. Riverheads had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Peyton Skillman.
The defense continued to keep Sussex pinned in the shadow of its goalposts, which led two touchdowns.
Smiley’s 6-yard run capped a short 5-play, 42-yard drive for a 17-0 lead with 3:59 left in the half.
Then an interference call on a Sussex defender on a fair catch put the ball at the Tigers’ 40. The Gladiators used three passes and three runs to find the zone, which Smiley finished with a 4-yard jaunt with six seconds on the clock for a 24-0 halftime advantage.
Smiley added his final two scores in the third quarter on runs of 5 and 3 yards.
Reserve quarterback Bennett Dunlap wrapped up the scoring on a 22-yard run with one second left in the game.