VALDOSTA -- Last week, Lowndes High was hoping its untested defense would be respectable in the season opener despite the loss of eight starters.
Not only did the defense hold its own, it turned the game for the No. 5 Vikings. After watching the offense struggle to score most of the night, Lowndes (1-0) came up with back-to-back turnovers in the second half to spark two touchdowns. Along with a pair of special teams safeties, it was enough for an 18-15 win over Westside-Macon.
Furthermore, Lowndes gave up just 156 total yards and only 79 rushing yards -- the latter number tops in Region 1-AAAAA. Not bad for a team that lost its entire front seven and a Division I-caliber defensive back (Vanderbilt's Funtaine Hunter), and entered the season as a question mark. Now the defense looks to be one of Lowndes' strengths entering Saturday night's game against Southwest DeKalb-Decatur. Kickoff at DeKalb Memorial Stadium is at 7:30 p.m. (Radio: WVGA-FM 105.9)
"We had to come out and make a statement at the front of the season," said junior cornerback Brad Johnson, an all-region player last year. "A lot of people said we weren't as good as last year, so I guess we had to prove a point."
"I believe a bunch of people changed their minds on what they thought," said sophomore defensive end B.J. Wright, who recorded a safety and a sack against Westside. "I know there's a bunch of people out there still who don't think we're as good as we are. But all we can do is just keep proving to people we can do it."
Head coach Randy McPherson has always taken pride in his defenses. That doesn't mean he wants his first edition at Lowndes thinking it has arrived yet.
"We've got to quit giving up big plays on defense," he said. "I said all along the defense is young, and I'm still saying that.
"But boy they played hard. There's a little bit of talent over there, and there's some scrappy kids. And they're starting to learn the system and believe in what we're doing."
Both Westside touchdowns came on 41-yard drives following busted punting plays. Lowndes gave up passes of 30 and 40 yards on those drives to set up short scores, but otherwise allowed only two plays longer than 10 yards.
"I guess after the first play of the game (on defense, in which Trent McClendon recovered a fumble), we realized where they were coming from," said Johnson. "We just stepped it up and did what we needed to do."
McClendon recovered a second fumble late in the third quarter that set up Lowndes' first touchdown of the season. Jarone Martin turned the same trick on Westside's next play from scrimmage and the Vikings cashed in for eight more points. Lowndes next came up with a three-and-out series that ended in a bad punt snap for another safety that sealed the win and a new defensive reputation.
"We've always tried to put our best on defense: our best athletes, our speed, our kids who love to hit," said McPherson. "It's just my philosophy that if you can stop people, you can play with anybody."
McPherson cautions that his defense will face stiffer challenges ahead, but the Vikings promise their focus is where it needs to be.
"We got the confidence back, but we need more wins," said Johnson.
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