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MOUNT ZION -- The Mount Zion third-string defense was in the game when Mahomet-Seymour starting quarterback Thomas Kenney bounced off a tackle and took the ball 1 yard into the end zone for a touchdown.

Mount Zion's new defensive coordinator, former Eisenhower, Illinois and NFL player Brit Miller, turned around and laughed. His defense had already proven its point -- this won't be last year.

The Braves forced four turnovers and allowed just 221 yards in a 34-16 win in Friday's season opener that wasn't that close. Mount Zion head coach Mike Popovich was wishing the Braves could go ahead and play Week 2 after the game.

"Defensively we finally have the mentality to match what we want to do on offense. That's what Brit brings," Popovich said. "No one thought we'd hold them to 16 points. There was no way.

"You saw kids playing with confidence out there. I mean, they played great defense. They really played great defense. I'm giddy. I am giddy. I'm excited. How can you not be?"

Last year's Mount Zion defense allowed 33.3 points per game, including 43.3 against teams with winning records. To begin this season, Mount Zion's first-team defense didn't allow a single point. The Bulldogs' only scores were on a first-quarter punt return and 10 late points with the Mount Zion reserves in.

"We have a lot of guys back from last year, so we have a lot more experience, and Brit coming in has given us some confidence," said Braves senior Peyten Chappel, one of those returning starters. "He knows what he's doing and that's been a big help in us feeling like we know what we're doing."

Mount Zion's offense -- completely unstoppable most of last season -- struggled early with several new starters, including a new quarterback in senior JJ Aldridge. But after scoring just twice in the first half, the Braves scored three third-quarter touchdowns -- two on Aldridge touchdown passes -- to help the Braves pull away.

Aldridge finished with 348 yards passing and three touchdowns.

"We weren't good on offense tonight -- that's the scary thing," Popovich said. "We knew there might be some times early on where we'd be figuring things out. But we're going to fix that."

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Justin's take

Much more stout

It wasn't just that last year's defense gave up a lot of points and yards. It was how it gave them up -- mostly on runs up the gut. It was demoralizing for a team that was racking up 43.5 points per game offensively but struggling against the better teams.

Against Mahomet, the Braves completely shut down Mahomet's passing game. A couple late runs padded the Bulldogs' stats, but they still managed just 180 yards on the ground.

"You're going to have to decide what you want to do against us," Popovich said. "If you want to try to grind it out against us, I think you're going to run into problems, because we're going to stop the run now. They were bigger than us up front, but we stopped it."

The difference

Chappel said Miller not only changed the defensive attitude, instilling some much-needed confidence, his scheme change -- from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 -- paid dividends.

"A lot of time the linemen can't figure out who to block, so we're just there to make free tackles," Chappel said.

Player of the game

In his first varsity start, senior defensive back Griffin Gahwiler had three interceptions.

"I read where the quarterback was going every time and ... I don't know, I can't believe it," Gahwiler said. "It's an amazing feeling."

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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