It’s called a polecat formation. Evangel lined up a quarterback and center, alone in the middle of the field. Offensive linemen were relegated to both sides before a shift left five linemen on one side, four on the other and a running back offset.
“We had seen the formation on film,” said Catholic defensive coordinator Matt Burmaster. “We knew the type of handoff it was going to be, but I wish we could have practiced it like that.”
Untouched, middle linebacker Brandon Fairbanks shot his gap between the center and guard. Evangel running back Jamarquez Mims took the handoff, the final one of his high school career, needing only to run out 37 seconds for a trip to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Somehow, the dude just, I just took it from him,” Fairbanks said, still unsure just how to adequately explain how the play unfolded.
“It happened so fast,” said Catholic coach Dale Weiner, in his 41st season as a high school football coach. “I hadn’t seen that one before.”
Thirty-three seconds later, Catholic tied the game. In overtime, cornerback Connor Bowen, broke on a curl route, dove for an interception in the right flat on Evangel’s second play. Catholic won two plays later, sending it to the Superdome for the first time since 1990.
The sequence is a microcosm of the Catholic defense in its first year under Burmaster, who abandoned the 3-4 scheme run for the past three seasons in favor of a 4-3 formation that sometimes shifts into a 4-2-5.
Implementation began in the summer, when a fourth lineman needed to emerge. Some outside linebackers transitioned to defensive ends while some defensive ends moved inside before the Bears’ first two regular-season games against Parkview Baptist and Zachary.
Parkview and its wishbone attack put up 334 rushing yards against the raw four-man front in a 33-26 win. A week later, Syracuse quarterback commitment Lindsey Scott had 342 of Zachary’s 504 yards of total offense in a 41-26 Catholic loss. Burmaster’s defense had allowed 74 points, and the Bears were 0-2.
“We were questioning,’” defensive end Aaron Moffitt said. “This isn’t who we know we have the potential to be; what are some things we can change. We started focusing on the smaller things, our gaps we were supposed to be in. Each person on our defense has a gap they’re supposed to fill.”
Staring 0-3 in the face and with a long road trip to Sam Houston ahead, Burmaster admitted he began to doubt. The schedule was difficult, yes, but the returning defensive crew wasn’t one he’d ever envisioned could surrender such gaudy numbers.
A veteran who’s helped coach 13 Class 5A teams into the playoffs, Burmaster’s been brought up in the profession to look at himself first.
“I had to reassess and make sure I was doing it,” Burmaster said. “The whole time, coach Weiner was just a constant, and that’s part of what makes him an outstanding coach. He said ‘Believe in what you’re doing and have faith in it.’ And he was right.”
There’s no one moment players can say was a turning point for the defense. More emphasis was placed on the 4-2-5 scheme, for which Burmaster heaps credit on his defensive assistants.
Finally in sync, his unit rolled to a 47-7 rout of Sam Houston, part of a 7-1 record to close the regular season, a span when the defense allowed no more than 17 points in each of the seven wins.
“He always seems to put us in the right positions,” Fairbanks said. “I don’t think anybody really felt we were in that big of trouble. It’s always bad when you lose two straight, but I don’t think anybody really felt like we were going to keep losing.”
Especially Weiner. Now with 306 career wins, the longtime coach wasn’t naïve to the struggles implementing a new coordinator would bring.
Weiner contrives a motto for each season. Perhaps fittingly, the 2015 team was tasked to “believe it.”
“I could tell (after the first two games) that he was in a situation like ‘Golly, I just got here, and we’re giving up a bunch of points,’” Moffitt said “But it never fazed him in the long run. Because look, now we’re in the Dome.”