Ankeny Centennial’s defense has been key to strong district start

WHO-HD highlights: Centennial vs. Ames
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ANKENY, Ia. — Much will be made of Ankeny Centennial’s offensive outburst against Ames on Friday night. There were 47 first-half points and 53 for the game, a new season high. The Jaguars ran just eight plays after halftime and still outgained the Little Cyclones by more than 100 yards.

Heck, the game itself — a 53-13 win for Ankeny Centennial — might very well be remembered as the one where Gabe Godwin took a handoff and sprinted toward the end zone only for the refs to call it dead because they, too, were fooled by the misdirection.

“I think we deserve a pizza for that,” senior tailback Jensen Gates said afterward.

But for all the fireworks on display, Friday night’s game at Ankeny Stadium was yet another strong showing from the Centennial defense, a unit that’s been the Jaguars’ strength in 2017.

Entering Friday night, Centennial boasted Class 4A’s second-best scoring defense, allowing just 10 points per game. Only twice had the Jaguars allowed double-digit scoring outputs to the opposition. Even more impressive, they had allowed 300 total yards of offense just once, in a 34-7 loss to Southeast Polk in Week 4.

It was the same kind of stinginess Centennial showed a year ago, when it began 7-0 and reached the Class 4A state semifinals at the UNI-Dome. Except, well, the Jaguars opened 2-2 this fall. Something felt off.

“They have had some struggles this year, but none of them were on the defense,” Ames coach Bruce Vertanen said. “We were very concerned. Every team has had a problem scoring on them. We knew their offense was starting to finding it, too.

“They were running on all cylinders on both sides of the ball.”

Indeed, the Jaguar offense has hit a stride in the last few weeks, averaging 45.7 points per game in their three district games after scoring just 49 total points in their first four games combined. While the offense has come, the defense has been just as mean.

On paper, Ames was supposed to provide a stiffer test. After six weeks, the Little Cyclones owned the state’s best total offense, at 502.7 yards per game, and the third-best scoring offense in Class 4A, at 49.5 points per contest. Quarterback Joe Evans was the catalyst, racking up more yards than any other individual player in Iowa’s largest class prior to Friday night’s matchup.

The Jaguars ignored those statistics. The Little Cyclones’ first possession went for negative-four yards and ended after three plays. The next reached the Centennial 30, but resulted in no points after a turnover on downs. At one point in the second quarter, Ames had goal-to-go at the Centennial one-yard line, and came away with zero points.

“Our defense is our backbone,” senior defensive back Riley Moss said. “I really like our aggressiveness, and I trust every single guy to do their job. That’s the thing — everybody does their job, which allows us to get it done on defense. It’s awesome.”

Gates talks about the Jaguars’ big win at home Friday.

For the game, Ames piled up only 293 yards, well below its season average, and needed 77 plays to get there, which equals 3.8 yards per snap. Evans had just 238 yards on 51 touches. He had been averaging 346.8 yards per game prior to playing Centennial.

“They’re just really physical,” Evans said. “They play as a unit. I don’t know. That’s one of the most physical defenses I’ve seen in a while. They really come out and hit you and flow to the ball really well.”

The competition only gets tougher for Centennial moving forward. Unbeaten Dowling Catholic and its explosive offense awaits next week. Two weeks after, presumably, holds the playoffs, where only the 16 best 4A teams will remain.

But the Jaguars have confidence in their defense, and will go as far as that unit can take them.

“Dowling will be a test,” Moss said and smiled. “It’ll be a fun, hard-hitting game. But I trust our defense to get it done.”

Cody Goodwin covers high school sports, college basketball recruiting and Drake athletics for The Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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