Lake Stevens’ Devin MacWatters (left), Junior Robinson (center) and Kasen Kinchen (right) tackle a Graham-Kapowsin player during the Nov. 9 game in Lake Stevens. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Lake Stevens’ Devin MacWatters (left), Junior Robinson (center) and Kasen Kinchen (right) tackle a Graham-Kapowsin player during the Nov. 9 game in Lake Stevens. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Turnover-forcing machine: Lake Stevens’ ball-hawking defense

With 30 takeaways and five pick-sixes, the Vikings have been busy sporting their new “turnover helmet.”

LAKE STEVENS — Searching for ways to generate added excitement about forcing turnovers, the Lake Stevens football team’s coaching staff gained inspiration from the University of Miami’s famed “turnover chain.”

The flashy gold chain Miami players began donning last season after forcing takeaways sparked a craze that’s taken college football by storm. From turnover belts to Boise State’s “turnover throne,” college teams across the country have found creative ways to reward defenders for takeaways.

“All these colleges are doing their thing,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said, “and I thought, ‘What could we do?’”

Enter the Viking “turnover helmet.”

Spurred by an idea from defensive coordinator Eric Dinwiddie this past offseason, Lake Stevens purchased a steel replica Viking helmet that sits on the team’s sideline training table. After games, any defender who forced a turnover puts on the helmet and poses for a photo that gets placed on the locker room wall.

“I love that helmet,” Tri said. “It’s so cool. Something so small like that, it’s amazing the difference it’s created. … Everyone wants to get their picture on the wall now, so it created just a sense of excitement for us on defense.”

The helmet certainly has received plenty of use this season during the Vikings’ run to the Tacoma Dome, where third-seeded Lake Stevens (13-0) will face top-seeded Union (13-0) in Saturday night’s Class 4A state championship game.

The Vikings have forced 30 turnovers — 20 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries — for an average of 2.3 takeaways per game. That’s a significant increase from each of the past seven seasons, during which Lake Stevens averaged between 1.3 and 1.7 takeaways per contest.

“You get one more (turnover) a game, and that’s one more possession for us and one less for (the opponent),” Tri said. “That’s a huge advantage.”

Furthermore, the Vikings’ defense has a knack for finding the end zone. Lake Stevens has returned five interceptions for touchdowns this season, including three in a rout of Jackson last month.

The Vikings’ biggest interception return for a touchdown came three weeks ago in the opening round of the state playoffs, when senior linebacker Isaiah Harris returned a fourth-quarter interception for a 40-yard score to help Lake Stevens pull away for a 56-42 win over Curtis.

“Those pick-sixes are very big in games — momentum-changers,” Harris said. “To be able to have five pick-sixes on one defense, that’s just crazy.”

It’s also going to make for quite the dinner bill. Lake Stevens has a tradition of providing a lobster or steak dinner to every player who scores a defensive touchdown during the season.

“The coaches are going to have to (split) the bill, because it’s going to be a spendy night,” Tri said with a laugh.

The Vikings’ ball-hawking defense has been strong all season, posting three shutouts and allowing just 16.3 points and 262 yards per game. But with Lake Stevens’ high-scoring offense dominating on the other side of the ball, sometimes the team’s defensive success can fly a bit under the radar.

“They’ve been the unsung hero all year long,” Tri said.

The Vikings’ defense has especially proven its mettle the past two weeks, shutting down Graham-Kapowsin and Woodinville en route to the title game.

In the state quarterfinal, the Vikings held University of Washington-bound Dylan Morris and Graham-Kapowsin’s high-powered offense to just 14 points until late in the fourth quarter. Lake Stevens limited Morris — one of the nation’s top-ranked senior quarterbacks — to just 13-of-29 passing for 200 yards in its 45-28 win.

In last week’s semifinal, the Vikings forced three turnovers and held Woodinville to a season-low 14 points and 241 total yards in a 28-14 victory.

“We have a strong D-front, fast linebackers and corners and safeties that can cover,” Tri said. “That’s a recipe for success.”

Led by a talented group of defensive linemen, Lake Stevens has posted 33 sacks — resulting in even more food rewards for the Vikings’ defense. Each Monday, defensive line coach Matt Leonard provides a sack lunch to any player who recorded a sack the previous Friday night.

“We find ways to externally motivate our kids,” Tri said with a laugh.

Senior defensive end Brandyn Roberts leads Lake Stevens with eight sacks, and junior defensive end Jager Hill has six sacks.

“Our defensive line is salty,” Tri said. “They get off blocks well, they’re disciplined, they tackle well in space (and) they eat up double-teams. … It really does start up front. (They) have really set the tone for us every game.”

“They definitely get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, which causes them to scramble around and kind of freak out and throw (the ball) up,” Vikings junior cornerback Kasen Kinchen said. “Then we’re just able to go pick the ball off.”

Kinchen, a three-star cornerback with an offer from the University of Oregon, is a lockdown force in the secondary with a team-high seven interceptions. Junior defensive backs Devin MacWatters and Ty Hilton have three interceptions apiece, and junior Joe Gonzales picked off two passes in last week’s semifinal contest.

Tri said his coaching staff had enough confidence in their secondary last week to play in a cover-zero formation — man-to-man coverage with no deep safety help — for much of the second half against Woodinville.

“We basically (were) daring them to throw the ball,” Tri said, “and when they did throw the ball, we were able to go get picks. In my mind, that was a difference-maker. … Those guys in the secondary doing their jobs back there allowed our front guys to focus on the run.”

Anchoring the linebacking corps are Harris and Junior Robinson, who each have eight tackles for loss.

“They’re fast and physical,” Tri said. “They run to the ball really well.”

Harris, listed at 5-foot-6, has four sacks to go along with a forced fumble and his interception-return touchdown.

“He plays with a chip on his shoulder because he’s a little undersized, but he reads so well,” Tri said. “He’s just a terror because of his speed and his quickness and his ability to read.”

“I like to prove people wrong,” Harris said.

That chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is one the Lake Stevens defense — and team as a whole — has embraced throughout its journey to the championship game. Whether it be holding Graham-Kapowsin’s nationally ranked quarterback in check or outshining a vaunted Woodinville defense, the Vikings and their turnover-forcing ball-hawks are thriving in the underdog role.

“I think we’re always overlooked,” Kinchen said, “and I kind of like it, because then we’ve always gotta go prove everybody wrong.”

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