Stout defense starts in the trenches for undefeated Falcons

Stout defense starts in the trenches for undefeated Falcons

GIBSON CITY — Bryce Barnes didn't play football last season for Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley.

"I had kind of a hamstring injury. I think I grew too fast because it was something with my bones," the 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior said. "Coming back out this year, it's been a lot of fun."

Josh Bleich didn't play defensive tackle last season. He lined up at outside linebacker — a position he's held since he started playing football in third grade.

"I got stronger, I guess, so they moved me inside," the 6-1, 205-pound junior said. "It's a lot more fun."

Barnes, Bleich and the rest of the GCMS defensive line are key reasons why this season is still going on — and why the Falcons are still having fun — into the second week of November.

GCMS (11-0) will put its dominating defense on its home field again at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Falcons host fellow Heart of Illinois Conference school El Paso-Gridley (7-4).

The two teams already met this season, with the Falcons winning 45-18 in Week 3.

It's the second straight season the two foes have met twice. And, El Paso-Gridley holds a key distinction — one that makes what the Falcons are accomplishing this season even more noteworthy.

The Titans have scored the most points against GCMS in either of the past two seasons. After giving up 18 against the Titans earlier this season, the Falcons have only allowed a combined 35 points in the subsequent eight games. And no program has topped 20 points since GCMS lost 22-20 to El Paso-Gridley in Week 2 of the 2016 season.

"This is a unique group," GCMS coach Mike Allen said. "You don't have that guy who is going to dominate all the time. If they double-team one, it's going to release someone else. Having Bryce come out again this year has made a big difference with his speed and his athleticism on the line. Him and Josh, the way they extend their arms to keep the offensive linemen away from them is phenomenal."

Those two defensive tackles aren't the only go-to options, though, for the Falcons' defensive line. Senior Mitch McNutt and junior Jared Trantina — who also double as the Falcons' top two rushers — are other key components. So is senior Connor Wahls, along with juniors Joe Allen and Hayden Workman.

"Keeping fresh guys in there makes a difference," Mike Allen said. "They're not the biggest guys, but they have speed and motors that go, so it's fun to watch."

Probably not for opposing teams, though. The Falcons have posted four shutouts this season, and Barnes said GCMS doesn't even like to yield a single touchdown in a game.

"We like to shut people out just to let them know no one is going to score on us," Barnes said. "If we don't shut people out, it's something to strive for the next week."

The Falcons' consistent defensive play, combined with a solid offense, may just give the program enough pieces to reach its first-ever state title game.

Northern heavyweight Sterling Newman (11-0) — which has won five state titles in its history — or Orion (9-2) would await GCMS if the Falcons are able to knock off El Paso-Gridley.

It's a postseason path Barnes and the other Falcons first started to realize was a possibility earlier this year.

"We worked really hard in the weight room this summer, and I think it's transferring onto the field," Barnes said. "We always push each other. If one of us gets a sack, it kind of makes the other person mad, so they're going to try extra hard to get one, too."

Like he often does when talking about his superb defense, Allen is quick to point out the contributions from defensive coordinator Chad Augspurger. His players do, too.

"He's a big help," Bleich said. "We know what other teams are going to do. We just have to do our job."

So far, that's led to an impressive season, one that could still contain more memories along the way, including a possible journey to DeKalb the day after Thanksgiving for the 2A state title game.

For now, however, the Falcons are gearing up for another meeting with El Paso-Gridley. And another chance for their defense to shut down an offense.

"A lot of people don't think the HOIC is as good as other conferences," Bleich said. "It'll be cool facing them again, and it'll be another chance to show that we can make a statement."

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