Strong defensive effort leads Mooney

CANTON – Two years removed from one of the most thrilling moments of his young life, Cardinal Mooney senior Mark Handel could breathe a little easier following a game against Big Red.

“This one was a little more comfortable than my sophomore year,” Handel said.

On Nov. 11, 2011, Cardinals kicker Connor Durina booted a 30-yard field goal with just five seconds remaining to lift Mooney over Steubenville, 24-22 in a regional semifinal.

This time around at Fawcett Stadium, the Cardinals routed Big Red, 37-7, in the Division IV state semifinal thanks to a two-part system established by head coach P.J. Fecko and implemented to near-perfection by his team.

“The first thing coming in, we wanted to make sure we’re sound,” Fecko said. “It’s no secret, Steubenville is a really good football team. They’re well-coached. You have to make sure you have everything covered and they’re going to take advantage of any weakness or guy out of position.

“The second part was about how much pressure we could get. I figured if we could be where we needed to be to stop the run if we got some pressure and our guys were able to do so.”

The Cardinals (10-4) limited Big Red (9-5) to just 74 rushing yards and a total of 156. Steubenville quarterback Mandela Lawrence-Burke was sacked six times for a total loss of 37 yards to finish with minus-17 on 11 attempts.

“We like to blitz,” said Mooney defensive lineman Jordan Jones. “We all had to penetrate and get there fast. We just came to play today and did our thing.”

Jones, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior played the second half with a broken right hand.

“That’s football,” he said. “You just got to fight through it.”

Jones dropped Lawrence-Burke for a 3-yard loss on Big Red’s first offensive play of the first quarter and Steubenville was forced to punt two plays later.

“Early on our defense did a great job of keeping them out of positive yardage,” Fecko said. “We did a good job of making plays and putting them in negative situations. The pick-6 didn’t hurt matters along the way.”

Handel picked off a Lawrence-Burke pass on Steubenville’s next drive and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown, which put the Cardinals up 14-0 with 3:41 remaining in the first quarter.

“I didn’t actually think he was going to throw it but it ended up coming my way and I was able to outrun them all the way,” Handel said. “Our defensive line, linebackers, they all played outstanding. That makes it easier on the secondary when guys are getting pressure and getting sacks.”

Jones led with a total of 9.5 tackles, Joey Tabachino had seven tackles and Denver Martin added six. Joe Kleech had four tackles with two for a loss.

“We knew they were going to run the ball, so that played right into our hands,” Kleeh said. “We’re very good against the run and we just lined up and started hitting people.”

Steubenville ran 17 passing plays and 24 running plays. Its lone touchdown, a 7-yard run by Johnnie Blue came on the 23rd running play.

“We knew we couldn’t play smash-face with them,” said Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia. “We had to do some boots and waggles and things like that. Unfortunately, we just didn’t execute.”

Conversely, the Cardinals were able to in all three phases of the game.

The defense held strong, the offense put up 243 yards and its fourth highest scoring output of the year.

Kicker Zak Kennedy didn’t feel upstaged by the final second heroics of 2011, either.

The junior booted two field goals of 38 yards and nailed a 43-yarder just before halftime to put Mooney up 20-0. Kennedy also converted all seven extra point tries and averaged 57.5 yards per kickoff with four touchbacks.

“We kept a short field with his kickoffs and playing good defense,” Fecko said. “It goes down to the old saying that every single phase is important in football. Special teams are just as important.”

The Cardinals play Clinton-Massie, which beat Kenton 21-20, for the Division IV state championship next week.