MERIDIAN — Meridian’s highly vaunted defense has the Warriors partying like its 2007.
The No. 1 defense in the state did its job Friday night in a championship atmosphere, forcing five turnovers, including two returned for scores, to beat Eagle 35-0 in the 5A Southern Idaho Conference championship game.
“It’s just a big milestone, giving us that confidence to go forward into the state championship with a 9-0 record,” said senior defensive back Spencer Aland, who had a fumble recovery in the second quarter, setting up a score, then returned an interception for a touchdown in the third quarter, as the Warriors closed in on a title. “People say it’s hard, but it gives us a big boost of confidence.”
The Warriors will head into the state playoffs as conference champions for the first time since winning the 2007 state title and will have a first-round bye into the quarterfinals, which will take place in two weeks. Meridian will host the winner of next week’s game between Lewiston and Middleton.
“We still have a lot to do, state’s the big goal,” said junior running back Rylie Byington, who ran all over the Mustangs (6-3) and also had a nice diving catch in the end zone from Zeke Martinez. “District is a big accomplishment, especially being undefeated is nice.”
Meridian’s defense did just what it had been doing all season, coming into the game allowing just 6.9 points per game. The most points the Warriors had given up was in a 36-14 win against Eagle in the season opener, although in that game the Mustangs got their two touchdowns on a muffed punt and a late touchdown, with the game out of reach.
This time, Meridian kept Eagle off the scoreboard, with a Mustang field goal attempt falling short in the closing seconds.
“I knew during that first game, we should have shut them out,” said Aland. “We had to do it with minimal mistakes, everyone putting in the maximum effort. Just seeing that goose egg on the scoreboard is an amazing feeling.”
Both team’s defenses controlled the first quarter, with Meridian’s defense making the first big play late in the quarter. Ryan Corder picked off a pass near the Eagle sideline and ran it back 33 yards for the score breaking the scoreless tie.
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“The turning point was the first pick we got for six,” said Meridian coach John Zamberlin. “Then we got some momentum going. They were way better than they were the first time we played them, the speed of it, it’s hard to see in practice. It’s hard to see, it takes a while to get adapted. They were moving the ball on us, I’ll give them credit for what they were doing. But Corder made a big play, touchdown for six and we started getting going with what we needed to be doing.”
Meridian got two touchdowns withing 24 seconds of each other late in the half, with Carter Davis making an interception, resulting in a 17-yard reception by Byington, where he dove in the end zone to catch Martinez’s pass. Byington said he never had any doubt on it.
“Zeke puts it where I can get it every time,” said Byington. “I feel like our connection is really good. From offseason to now, our connection is really good and it really does translate over to the field
On Eagle’s next offensive play, Meridian forced a fumble, recovered by Aland at the 23-yard line and on the next play Martinez found Corban Freese open in the end zone for another score 24 seconds after their previous one.
Eagle appeared to have a chance to get a score on its first drive in the second half, catching a ball inside the Meridian 5 after a pass catch, but Nathan Reynolds forced a fumble and the Warriors recovered, their fourth take away of the night.
Aland got his second turnover of the game late in the third on Meridian’s second pick-6 of the game to extend the lead to 28-0 on a 15-yard score.
“It really just moved the momentum from Eagle being out there flying around to where the more the turnovers were happening, the more they started giving up a little bit,” said Aland. “You could tell the way they were running the ball, those turnovers really do change a ball game.
Martinez added a 2-yard touchdown run on the keeper for Meridian’s final points of the game.