Highly anticipated matchups — especially ones that have been anticipated for weeks down the road by fans — usually attract a great amount of attention.
But when both teams involved in said matchup do nothing but prove why and how that matchup has been so anticipated for weeks to come, it speaks volumes as to what both teams have been about in 2017.
Throughout the course of the regular season, the West Senators’ and the Wheelersburg Pirates’ football programs have done nothing but prove to all why they are both 9-0.
They’ve won in different ways from an offensive standpoint — West with a time-consuming offense that eats up the clock but demands respect in every facet, Wheelersburg by using its explosiveness to create big plays from sideline to sideline in an offense that has wowed with its discipline in between those big shots. They’ve won in different ways from a defensive standpoint — ‘Burg by holding opponents to just 2.3 yards per rush behind a dominating front six, West by forcing turnovers and making critical defensive stands that show the poise of a title-contending team.
However, only one team can win the SOC II Championship — and only one team can obtain the No. 1 overall seed in Division V, Region 19. While the latter point isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, the former means everything to both programs, especially with both communities on a football high that hasn’t been seen in quite sometime.
And with that being said, one thing’s for sure: both teams aren’t going to underestimate what the other brings to the table in the latest version of the Halloween Bowl.
“This is one of those games where you don’t pay attention to the records, because both teams are going to come in jacked up and playing at a high level,” Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward said. “(Ben) Johnson will have his guys ready to go. West is a very well-coached, disciplined team defensively and has the ability on offense to really move the football. We’re looking forward to a great matchup.”
“Anytime it’s a big rivalry game, you just focus on the game as itself,” West head coach Ben Johnson said. “You can’t look on what’s happened before, but what’s going to happen when the game gets going. You’ve got to focus on what’s going to happen as far as the next snap is concerned.”
For West, the Senators are looking to spoil the expectations of most who believe that Wheelersburg will win in convincing fashion by approaching Week 10 in the same manner as it has over the previous nine weeks. In Weeks 6, 7, and 8, Johnson has challenged his unit to treating every game as if it is for the SOC II title — and it has certainly paid off, as the Senators have won big over Minford (50-6) and Valley (38-7) and defeated Waverly in a tight 31-27 affair that moved West to 3-0 in games that have been decided by six points or less.
According to Johnson, that atmosphere has only helped the Senators this week as West prepares for its biggest test of the 2017 campaign, bar none.
“That’s the good thing about (playing for a championship),” Johnson said. “When you treat every week like a championship week, you don’t have to change anything. If you stay in that mindset year-around, you’re already prepared, and the mindset is where it needs to be in order to compete. I feel like our guys have been focused in a very good manner this week, and we’re ready to go.”
Wheelersburg, however, hasn’t slacked by any means in its preparation over the first nine weeks in its own right. The Pirates have accumulated eight running clock affairs over its first nine contests, including victories over Waverly (62-20), Minford (59-7) and Valley (38-7) in SOC II action.
And Week 10, according to Woodward, has proven to be no different.
“I can’t say enough about how these guys have continually grown from week to week, and gotten better,” Woodward said. “This week, it has been just crazy in terms on the intensity and the energy that these guys have. When you factor in the two scrimmage games and the intrasquad scrimmage that we do, we’ve had 13 weeks of football where guys have consistently shown up to practice everyday hungry and ready to get out there and get after it. Our captains, Alex George, Xander Carmichael, Bryson Keeney, CJ Hall, and Nic Parsley bring a crazy amount of energy to practice, yet, in terms of preparation, still have the focus and the drive to recognize what needs to happen and get their teammates ready for each week. I am really pleased with the energy that the guys continue to bring to practice week after week.”
While both units have utilized different offensive packages in 2017, both squads have had no trouble running, or throwing, for significant yardage in 2017.
Wheelersburg, in fact, has proven to be nothing less than dynamite from the offensive side of the football in 2017 as its 46 points per contest, 4,015 yards of total offense, and 53 touchdowns suggest. Trent Salyers has led the charge from the quarterback position as the first-year starter has played beyond outside expectations, throwing for 2,341 yards and 25 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes in the process (124-of-187) through the air. The junior has added 321 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground to show off his complete abilities as a dual-threat quarterback.
Around Salyers, the production certainly has been great, to say the very least, as the rushing attack has garnered 1,646 yards on 279 carries (5.9 yards per pop) and 28 touchdowns in 2017. Tanner Holden (52 catches, 1,066 yards, 16 touchdowns) and Cole Lowery (33 catches, 603 yards, two touchdowns) have been critical to the offensive attack from a receiving standpoint.
“They’re a threat to score from anywhere on the field offensively,” Johnson said of Wheelersburg. “They have explosive athletes that can take it the distance if you’re not fundamentally sound on defense. You have to tackle well, and you have to be in the proper alignment and position to make plays defensively.”
“We’ve got to continue to stay balanced,” Woodward said. “We’ve been extremely balanced and have not given up huge tendencies on anything that we’ve done. The biggest thing that we have to do is to continue to move the chains. We need to take what teams give us, continue to take shots where we can, and orchestrate those shots.”
West, however, has put together a special offensive unit in its own right. In fact, the Senators, who are averaging 35.7 points per affair through nine contests behind 2,910 total yards of offense and 35 total touchdowns, have a dynamo of their own in Garrett Hurd. Hurd, who has run for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns on 178 carries in 2017, leads an offense that has rushed for 1,953 yards and a 5.5 yard-per-carry average on the ground.
“Garrett’s just had an outstanding year,” Johnson said. “I believe he’s just gotten better and better as the year’s gone on as he’s received more game experience and carries. What impresses me the most is his toughness. He hasn’t been completely healthy all season long, but he’s shown up week in and week out and gives the maximum effort on every play. Hat’s off to him and the offensive line. They’ve been doing a great job all year long.”
In addition to Hurd, Dylan Bradford, Hurd’s fellow junior classmate, has shown great maturity from the quarterback position. Bradford, in fact, has completed 60 of his 104 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns to just four interceptions during the course of the year, and has added 304 yards to go along with eight additional scores on the ground. Five West players have caught passing touchdowns and four of those five have accumulated over 100 yards for the Senators on the season in what has proven to be a balanced offensive attack.
“They’ve got a big, stout offensive line that really comes off the football well, and I’m so impressed with the way that (Garrett) Hurd runs the football,” Woodward said. “He runs like he is a power back in the backfield, and I’m very impressed with the job that he has done back there. His yards after contact, and the way that he takes care of the football, is really impressive. He’s just a hard runner. I’m really impressed with the job that (Dylan) Bradford has done in orchestrating the offense and how he handles things back there. He’s slippery back there, and brings different intangibles to the game that are strong.”
As with the offensive units, the defensive staffs have gotten it done in different ways, but with the same positive results.
For Wheelersburg, it’s been all about stopping the run, and bending, but not breaking, on the pass. The Pirates have showcased that dominance from its front six all season long, as Wheelersburg has held its opponents to 584 yards rushing on 259 carries for the aforementioned 2.3 yards per carry. The defense, in fact, has been so dominant from an overall standpoint that its opponents have more turnovers (13) than actual touchdowns (10) in 2017, even with its backups and third-string personnel seeing most of the second half minutes. A total of 49 players, in all, have made a tackle in 2017.
“We’ve got to generate some takeaways, but really limit those on offense, too,” Woodward said. “We’ve got to be able to play some sound football throughout the game on Friday.”
Speaking of takeaways, that quality is something that West has been extremely good at in 2017. Overall, the Senators have collected an astounding plus-nine turnover margin in 2017 (18-9), while housing five of those 18 takeaways for touchdowns behind the play of a frontline that includes Jakeb Guilkey and Brandon Weaver, along with the back six, which includes Cody Staggs and Josh Berry. Staggs has five interceptions on his own to lead the unit in that category. Wheelersburg, meanwhile, is dead-even (14-14) in the takeaway category.
“That’s kind of the style that this team has evolved into and taken on as the season has progressed,” Johnson said. “As we’ve gotten better and each week has come along, I felt like we’ve done an excellent job of controlling and possessing the football, and our defense has done an excellent job of creating turnovers and getting some scores, or setting up our offense in good field position. That’s something that we’re going to have to continue to do this week with Wheelersburg’s explosive offense. It’s really going to be to our benefit if we possess the ball and keep out of their hands as much as possible.”
“West has obtained a lot of takeaways,” Woodward said. “That’s what comes with a disciplined defense. When you’re in the right place to make a play, it definitely bodes well for being able to make a play, and those guys get themselves aligned, get themselves in the right positions, and they’re able to make a play on the football when the ball comes their way. They’ve done a great job of that.”
While both units have utilized different qualities to obtain their successes offensively and defensively, both teams have proven to be quite similar from a special teams standpoint as units that will make opponents pay for the slightest of slip-ups.
Behind two excellent kickers (Drew Cassidy, West, 7-of-9 field goal, long of 44, 38-of-39 PAT, and Jalen Miller, ‘Burg, 7-of-9 field goal, long of 43, 49-of-56 PAT), both special teams units have reliable kickers that can connect from long distance if a drive stalls even slightly outside of the opposing team’s 35-yard line. Cassidy, who has a 37.5 punt average, and Xander Carmichael, who has obtained a 39.2 punt average, also provide boots that can pin opponents deep inside their own territory.
From a return standpoint, both teams have shown excellence there in key moments, as Staggs returned a kick and a punt back for a score last week against Cincinnati Shroder for West, while Makya Matthews collected a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown last week against Valley for Wheelersburg. Eli Ruby added a blocked kick that he returned 30 yards for a touchdown against Jackson on Sept. 22.
“They’re outstanding on special teams,” Johnson said. “Fundamentally, they’re great, and they also look for opportunities to make big plays, whether it be an onside kick or a fake punt. They won’t shy away from taking those opportunities if they are there, and we’ve had to prepare in depth for that this week, as well. Defensively, they’re just solid all-around, against the run in the pass. They’re going to get some stops, but we have to stick with what we do, trust each other, and believe that we’ll be able to establish ourselves as we have in the past.”
“Special teams is a key part of the game for us, and I know that it is for West as well,” Woodward said. “When two teams of this caliber are competing against each other in all facets of the game, we’ve got to look to be sound on all of them.”
With an SOC II Championship on the line, it can be rendered difficult to think about anything else other than the game, and the situations that will arise during it. However, even Johnson and Woodward had to take time to admire, and admit, how special the rivalry really is.
“Both communities look forward to it each year, and there’s a lot of pride involved,” Johnson said. “I personally feel very fortunate that I get to participate in this great rivalry. It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere. I imagine it’ll be standing-room only, and it’ll be a rowdy crowd. I’m just very privileged that I get to be a part of it, and I’m very proud to be a West Senator.”
“It’s going to be two or three deep along the fences, with the hillside packed,” Woodward said. “We’re really pleased to have Spectrum TV coming down and watching us play. Having the recognition of two Southern Ohio teams playing on TV is great. We’re happy to be able to host them coming down, and allow the rest of the state to see the community spirit that is present in Southern Ohio. There will be a lot of Orange and Black on this Halloween game, and we’re looking forward to a great, great night of Friday night football for young high school athletes that work hard throughout the entire year to put themselves in this kind of position.”
Friday’s contest can be heard on WNXT MIX 99.3 and 107.5 The Breeze as part of a Mega-Cast … The game will also be televised by Spectrum Sports Ohio and can be watched on tape-delay at 11 p.m. Friday evening.