Syracuse • Nothing quite measures a defense as starkly as fourth down and short.
The crowd screaming, the linemen setting their fingers in the turf it's arguably the purest test for any unit that wishes to call itself great.
That's what was going through Caden Call's mind as Bingham lined up against the Syracuse defense for 2 yards that would give them another chance to win in Thursday's 4A semifinal.
"It's that whole thing: Defense wins championships," said Call, a junior defensive tackle. "It's why we play, for moments like that. You need a big stop, and everyone gets to see what it's all about."
In that tense moment, the Titans made the tackle, got the stop and the 21-16 win to head to the program's first-ever championship game. But facing wire-to-wire No. 1-ranked Jordan, it's clear that they will once again be an underdog.
Something intriguing is happening up in Syracuse: The 12-0 Titans are perhaps one of the most dismissed undefeated teams in recent memory. Yet they've allowed the fewest points in Class 5A, and they just beat the second-ranked defense without arguably their most valuable player.
It's hard to argue Syracuse is having a fluke season considering it was in the semifinals last year, and it's gone through two of the top bluebloods in the state to get to the championship.
"I think it's good we've flown under the radar," says Jace Purser, a 200-pound defensive end who has terrorized offensive lines for 9.5 sacks this season. "Teams think they don't have to prepare for us, then they get surprised when we play well."
It might have something to do with the unlikely nature of the Titans' rise. They graduated most of their offensive and defensive linemen last year, give up some size to many of the teams they face, and have suffered crippling injuries in the playoffs.
Quarterback Brock Anderson, a dynamic dual-threat leader for Syracuse, will be on the sideline on Friday after getting surgery for a torn ACL. Three defensive backs also missed the Bingham game with injury.
But the Titans sack quarterbacks and intercept passes as efficiently as anyone in the state, and they do it without big-name Division I commitments. It's telling that the team is having such success a year after the graduation of Hunter Dimick, one of the school's biggest recruits in its six-year history.
"I think everyone would like those big offers," senior cornerback Diante Mitchell says. "But we don't single anyone out. Everybody buys into the system."
Syracuse fights through more athletic teams by having thorough technique. It means a lot of time pushing sleds, a lot of time working through techniques the Titans use to beat linemen with 60 to 80 pounds of weight advantage.
"We know what we can do and we know what we can't do," Purser says. "We're always trying to think of other options."
But Jordan is ranked No. 1 for a reason, much in part to the Beetdiggers' ability to run the ball with quarterback Austin Kafentzis and Clay Moss. A senior-laden line one that the Titans describe as the toughest they'll see has powered a Jordan offense that hasn't scored fewer than 33 points this year.
Syracuse is allowing 9.1 points per game this year. So something has to give.
If the Titans do somehow beat the odds, do somehow come up with a fourth-and-short situation that could give them their first title, they believe they won't be the ones who give in.
"In those big moments, you want to make the big play," Call says. "We love it when people underestimate us. It's up to us to go and prove them wrong." Syracuse defense hoping to keep up solid season
• The Titans lead 5A in defense, giving up only 9.1 points per game.
• Cardon Malan and Jace Purser have combined for 18.5 sacks this season.
• Five Titans have multiple interceptions this year.