WASHINGTON — While the last-second touchdown pass from Caleb Fisher to Sam Walter drew much of the attention from Washington’s 23-21 second-round playoff win last week over Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, several of the game’s unsung heroes were watching the deciding play from the sidelines.

That would be the Panthers defense, which held the high-powered Cyclones offense to just 93 yards and seven points in the second half, making possible those late heroics by the offense.

Electrifying SHG tailback Alex Sweetland, who scampered for 120 first-half yards, was held to just 4 yards rushing in the second half and was tackled for losses three times.

Such coverage enabled Washington to rally from a 14-10 halftime deficit.

“That’s a testament to coach (Todd) Stevens and how well he sees the game,” said Minnesota-bound tackle J.J. Guedet, who is joined by Fisher, Walter and a few others on both sides of the ball. “Coach Stevens is the best asset we have. We rely on him a lot.”

Many previously successful Washington defenses would echo those remarks. Stevens has served as the program’s defensive coordinator for 17 years. But few of his units have been as experienced or familiar with each other as this group.

“I’ve known this same group of guys since I was a (team) waterboy as a kid,” said defensive end Will Crouch, the son of head coach Darrell Crouch. “We mesh well. We’re a family — all for one, one for all, the Musketeer thing. But it all starts with coach Stevens.”

Washington has held opponents to a mere 8.8 points per game in its 11 victories this season. It’s not like the Panthers’ defense is difficult to prepare for; Stevens has maintained the basic structure for his entire tenure, so there are few secrets.

Still, it’s awfully hard to execute an offense against it. The Panthers players combine good size and athleticism with sound fundamentals, a tough combination to beat at the high school level.

“We’re usually very disciplined,” said Darrell Crouch. “The Morton game (a 55-27 win) was the only one this year I didn’t feel like we were. And we’re pretty athletic. Our big guys are athletic guys who can move well. We’re very gap sound. They understand our expectation of 11 guys running to the ball.

“They’ve accomplished a great deal, but several of them have been on varsity since sophomore year. So the expectations we had on them as a coaching staff were pretty high.”

Stevens added another important ingredient to the mix.

“We’ve got kids who are students of the game,” he said. “You see so many different offensive sets and looks nowadays, having kids who study the game and are able to identify what changes need to be made, it’s almost like having extra coaches on the field.”

Stevens singled out senior linebackers Cole Ludolph and Brendan Durr at the top of the list of students of the-game. The pair are among the team’s tackle leaders, joined by fellow linebacker Max Mauschbaugh and Guedet.

Fisher and Brady Klein are the interception leaders with four apiece.

“We have tweaked things a little bit over the years,” Stevens said. “For the most part, we have a simple scheme. It can change a little from week to week depending on our opponents. We put a lot of emphasis on our linebackers’ reads and our tackling skills. Every Friday night, we’re pretty confident in our plan. Our mentality hasn’t changed much for the most part. We’ve been pretty fortunate to have kids come in who fit into our 4-3 system.”

The next challenge for the defense is 2 p.m. Saturday in the quarterfinal round of the Class 6A playoffs at Crete-Monee.

“Crete-Monee is super athletic, definitely with big-play potential,” said Darrell Crouch. “They use two or three quarterbacks and they can all run.”

Another big game, another big opportunity for Stevens to ready his players.

“It’s the speed issue again, like with Morton only they have three or four guys as quick and fast as Nolan Donald and Jarrett Crider,” Stevens said. “We can’t reach (on tackles). We have to take one extra step to make sure we’ve got ‘em (tackled), or it’s going to be ‘To the house.’ It’ll be a challenge. But what they run as an offense, we’ve traditionally defended pretty well.”

This year, Stevens could say that about most anything an opponent has thrown at his defense.

Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or dreynolds@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.