CHATHAM, NJ - When Chatham takes the field on Saturday to meet West Essex in the state semifinals, the defense will be preparing for a "doubleheader."
"We like to say we play a doubleheader," senior linebacker Nick Zack said. "So the first half is our first game and the second half is our second game. The other team is (thinking of) only playing one game and we're playing two, so we feel like we have fresh legs in the second half, which can really make a difference."
Chatham (8-2) will only have to win one game at Cougar Field in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 semifinals when it meets West Essex (6-4). But the Cougars are confident in the lasting power of its defense.
"We're not fatigued, necessarily, at the end of the game, but you can see it in the other team, their morale, they have their hands on their hips and they're feeling it," Zack said.
That seemed to be the case a week ago when Chatham went on the road and knocked Barringer from the undefeated ranks, 31-6, in the first round of the state playoffs. The Blue Bears, who came in averaging 42 points per game, were shut out in the second half.
Chatham's offense has made the headlines this season, but the defense has been just as vital to the team's success from the start. In the season opener, it was the defense that made the stop on fourth down, making the last-play touchdown pass from Timmy Adams to Robbie Moskowitz for the 25-22 victory possible.
"We're all in great condition," free safety Brian Brady said. "It's something we learned in the summer, to grind it out through two-a-days. You get some time to relax between sessions, but you know you have to go back and pound it. The Randolph game kicked things off for us."
There always seems to be a different Cougar stepping into the spotlight on defense. Against Barringer, it was Greg Kurlak, who was assigned to one of Barringer's taller receivers. Kurlak intercepted a pass in the first quarter and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-0.
The Knights of West Essex run a Wing T offense, which can be difficult to defend.
"As a team we identify the formation and we tailor our defense to what the other team does," Zack said. "We're no stranger to Wing T teams, we scrimmaged West Morris and Randolph and Morris Hills run the Wing T."
Head coach Jason Izsa, who runs the defense, installed Chatham's 3-5 defense to take advantage of the athletes on this squad. The defensive line features a rotating 3-man front that includes Ryan Ness, Colin Ness, Mike Kellstrom, Jahanzab Khan, Graham LeMon and David Vivona.
The five-man linebacker corps consists of Ryan Barnett, Matt Nestler, Zack, Dylan Ott and Pat Cosgrove. The three middle linebackers Barnett, Nestler and Zack have racked up the tackles, but the more subtle contributors have been Ott and Cosgrove.
"To be in the defense we have and to have two guys like Dylan and Pat is important," Izsa said. "They have to be a hybrid of a pass/run guy. To have strong-safety types like Pat and Dylan is big. We ask a lot of them. They're very, very versatile and that's been the key to our success, having the athletes we have on the field."
Izsa explained that Ott has quietly been having a very good year without getting the tackle statistics of the other linebackers.
"He might not get the stats, but he's doing the things we ask him to do," Izsa said. "My best comparison is in baseball when a guy hits the ball to the right side and the runner goes from second to third. It's nothing in the stat book except for recording an out, yet he did his job and did what he had to do. Every time I think of Dylan, I think of him doing something like that. It doesn't show up in the stats, but he gets the job done."
Chatham's secondary has been especially stingy this year against the pass, having allowed a total of four touchdowns through the air this season.
"When we switched to the 3-5 defense last year, we had certain guys in mind to play safety," Izsa said. "Brian (Brady) is an extra athlete who we have back there who plays the run and pass well. There was a time that he played two receivers at once and did a textbook job on it. To have a guy like that back there is tremendous."
The secondary includes cornerbacks Moskowitz, Justin Hayes, Kurlak and Mike O'Connell.
"We're peaking at the right time and that's what matters," Brady said. "We're a team that's known for its speed and when we slip up our speed can make up for it."
Chatham has posted two shutouts this season and held three other teams to seven points or less.
Chatham linebacker Pat Cosgrove pressures Barringer QB Zamar Wise during first round of the Group 3 playoffs