LENA — The Lena-Winslow Panthers have plowed through their first five opponents of the season as they attempt to successfully defend their fifth Class 1A state championship in the past 12 years.
And like usual, the charge is being led by a stingy defense.
However, during last week's 54-32 victory over Fulton, Le-Win's lone weakness may have been exposed — for the second time this year. And just in time for them to begin their tough stretch of the schedule.
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"It was a big win, but it was still kind of a wake-up call for us," Le-Win coach Ric Arand said. "Going all the way back to the Dakota game, we knew we needed to get better at stopping the pass. And I'm not sure if we did. We will need to going forward."
Le-Win's offense did produce four touchdown runs of 43 yards or more in last week's win over Fulton, and scored over 46 points for the fifth straight week to start things off. And while the defense has surrendered just 12.4 points per game through five games, and the Panthers have been strong versus the run, they have been a little susceptible to a strong air game.
Le-Win is now preparing for tough a nonconference meeting with an up-and-down Woodstock Marian team this Friday night, one that has a powerful passing attack. Le-Win is then at Durand/Pecatonica on Oct. 7, which has transitioned to the spread offense and has had the NUIC's best passing game for the past three years.
The Panthers then host Stockton on Oct. 14, and are at Forreston for the regular-season finale on Oct. 21. But if Le-Win can't stop the pass in the next two, every team may start to go to the air in an attempt to slow down the perennial 1A state power.
So as they get set for that gauntlet, the Panthers are looking to make their pass defense even better. Here's how, and why:
How good has the D been so far?
Le-Win has already posted two shutouts and had one game when it allowed just six points, and that's through just five games. The Panthers still have one of the best defenses in the state.
But in their two games against passing offenses, Le-Win has surrendered 56 points and 488 yards through the air.
Even with 10 interceptions in just five games, and five of those returned for touchdowns, Le-Win feels it needs to improve on its pass defense.
"Around here, we don't dwell on the past, and the second we walk off the field we're thinking about what's next," offensive and defensive line leader Henry Engel said. "But we know when it comes to our defense against the pass, we need to iron some things out, for sure."
Fulton quarterback Brayden Dykstra completed 25 of his 37 passes, to six different receivers, for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Back in Week 2 as Le-Win was rolling to a 48-24 win, Dakota's Kaidyn Niedermeier completed 18 of his 34 passes for 240 yards, and he helped bring his team back (somewhat) late in the game with 3 touchdown passes. The Panther defense also helped its own cause in that game with 3 interceptions of Niedermeier's passes.
But there has still felt like there's been something lacking when it comes to stopping the pass.
"We've got some challenges coming up," Arand said. "We're going to have to figure that out."
What was learned from Fulton win
Le-Win fell behind 6-0 to Fulton in what Arand called his team's "first true test" last week, and also trailed 12-8 and 19-16 in the second quarter. Fulton was just two weeks removed from a 31-22 win over reigning conference champion Durand/Pecatonica.
And while the Panthers pounded on the Steamers in the second half en route to a 22-point win, Fulton QB Dykstra still seemed to be picking them apart.
"This defense thrives on tough competition," Engel said, "and we just get better when the games get closer. ... But we keep having those couple of plays that we want back."
Dykstra completed his passes to six different receivers, but Le-Win did intercept him once, giving the Panthers' defensive backs 10 picks on the season. And headed into the matchup, Dykstra had completed 46 of 78 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns, with 6-foot-6 junior end Baylen Damhoff hauling in 18 receptions for 209 yards and 2 TDs on the season. So Fulton's passing game has been on target all season long, not just against the Panthers.
Le-Win was able to fend off a tough onslaught from the Steamers mostly because the offense was breaking off yards in large chunks. The Panthers had 10 runs of 20 or more yards, and they got 238 yards and 2 TDs on just 11 carries from halfback Gunar Lobdell, and 188 yards and 4 touchdowns on 17 rushes from fullback Gage Dunker.
Still, this one taught Le-Win a lot about what it needs to work on defensively.
"Our first job is to stop the run, and make teams one-dimensional, and make them have to beat us with the pass," said Dunker, who also starts at defensive end. "And we've done that. But we need to improve in all areas when it comes to stopping the pass.
"It's only going to get tougher."
What's the backstretch look like
Le-Win hosts Woodstock Marian, which is 2-3 after an early-season roller-coaster ride, at 7:30 p.m. Friday night. Woodstock Marian is a Class 3A team, but has played as high as 5A with a multiplier. This is the biggest school the Panthers will face all season long.
"We don't know what we can do to stop these guys," Arand said early this week as he prepared his team for Marian. "This is a huge challenge for us. To play a school of their size, with the tradition they have, it's going to be tough.
And then is the big anticipated rematch with Durand/Pecatonica waiting on Oct. 7. That game could decide who claims the NUIC title, and Du/Pec has replaced potent passing QB Hunter Hoffman with his younger brother Cooper Hoffman this season, and the offense is still clicking.
The Panthers then host Stockton, which is coming off a big 64-8 win over West Carroll, and are then at Forreston, the team that knocked off Le-Win 30-24 in the regular-season finale last year, for this year's regular-season finale on Oct. 21.
So if Le-Win wants to claim its fifth NUIC title since 2015, and build some serious momentum heading into the playoffs, it could come down to whether its defense can stop its opponents' late-game passing surges.
"We've told them, and we've worked on it," Arand said. "So let's see."
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Jay has covered a wide variety of sports, from the Chicago Bears to youth sports, for more than 20 years at the Register Star, and for nearly 30 years all together. He was a four-sport athlete himself, and is the father of five that went on to be jocks of some kind as well.
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Lena-Winslow looks to shore up pass defense before making another run