PORTSMOUTH — The setup is similar, but will the winner be the same?
Last year at this week-two time, the Portsmouth Trojans had just defeated the Valley Indians —while the West Senators fell by one point in heartbreaking fashion to the Fairland Dragons.
Fast forward to this season’s openers, and the results were a run-back —the Trojans topping the Indians and the Senators losing to Fairland once again by a single solitary point.
But each football game, each season, stands on its own accord —and so will Friday night’s renewal of the U.S. Route 52 river road rivalry, that is the West Senators and the Portsmouth Trojans.
A West win, and the Senators avoid a second consecutive 0-2 start — while the Trojans try to take their record to 2-0 once again.
It’s also once again a potential path-trending contest, as kickoff is set for 7 p.m. inside Portsmouth High School’s sparkling Trojan Coliseum.
Friday’s affair also marks the 13th and final consecutive game away from West’s refurbished “Rock” —which underwent a full facelift last season, and now sports a new FieldTurf surface.
The Senators’ September Homecoming includes four home dates —starting next week with Adena.
But that’s down the road for West, which is zeroed in on the here and now with Portsmouth.
Both coaching staffs scouted the other as a result of playing on different nights in the opening week (Portsmouth played on Thursday and West on Friday), but again, no matter the records —rivalry games are the ultimate wild cards.
Although, second-year West head coach Todd Gilliland doesn’t seek a second straight 0-2 start.
The Dragons and Trojans are members of the Ohio Valley Conference, as that Lawrence-County centric conference went a successful 6-2 in the opening week.
“It’s a big game for us. We’ve played Portsmouth for many years now, and getting Fairland back on the schedule the past couple of years, we want to play challenging games. You want games like this, but 1-1 is a lot better than 0-2. Want to get some momentum heading in this four-game home stretch,” said Gilliland.
Speaking of momentum, the Trojans have opened against the Indians every season since 2012 — sans the coronavirus-canceled contest of two years back.
Portsmouth has now won those past six meetings, and it’s served as a kick-starter for Division V state playoff berths of the past three full regular seasons.
The Trojan train, simply put, plans full steam ahead.
“We need to carry the momentum from the Valley win, and get ready for a very physical West team,” said PHS coach Bruce Kalb. “It was a great battle last year, and we didn’t seal the victory until the later part of the game. I don’t expect any different than a four-quarter battle this year.”
Last season’s tilt took place at Roy Rogers Field at Northwest High School, as the Trojans turned —early and often —five Senator turnovers including four lost fumbles into precious points.
Portsmouth pulled away from a 14-7 advantage with the final 20 points over the final 29 minutes and 35 seconds, as the Senators’ score came courtesy of a 66-yard pass from Mitchell Irwin to Alex Blevins.
And, while Portsmouth opened with 42-28 victory at Valley, the Senators statistically dominated the Dragons, but lost on the scoreboard 14-13.
The outcome last season was 28-27 in favor of Fairland in a game played at Portsmouth, but twice now, West was guilty of some inopportune and critically-timed mistakes.
A botched punt attempt at the Senators’ own 18-yard-line which resulted in a 15-yard loss set up the Dragons’ first score, West had its extra-point attempt on its second touchdown blocked, quarterback Irwin was intercepted twice, and the Dragons scored their second touchdown with a 38-yard pass play.
All the while, West outgained Fairland by 150 yards (305-155) — including advantages of 15-6 in first downs, 67-43 in plays from scrimmage, 13-plus minutes in time of possession, and 104-19 in rushing yards.
“Stats-wise, we did some nice things, but Fairland made some big plays when they needed to. We felt that was a game that yeah, we should have won, but we needed to make some plays at the right time, and it just didn’t go our way,” recalled Gilliland. “We had some opportunities to do some things, but we didn’t run the ball as well as we would have liked. We weren’t as balanced on offense as we needed to be.”
By balance, West’s bread-and-butter has been its running attack, so 104 yards on 37 attempts is indeed an improvement aspect this week.
Ryan Sissel, an all-Southeast District Division V first-team running back last season, carried 18 times for 55 yards —but he has rushed for well over 100 yards in several games the past two years.
Irwin attempted 28 passes and completed 11 for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and added 11 rushing attempts for 43 yards.
He completed passes to five separate Senators, as Jeffery Bishop made four receptions for 87 yards —of which 65 covered the initial West score.
“They have a lot of kids back both ways. (Ryan) Sissel, (Jeffery) Bishop and (Mitchell) Irwin are three good playmakers,” said Kalb. “They are always very physical too and that is something we have to address this week. Matching their physicality.”
The Senators’ ball-control exploits are indeed two-fold, for the longer West possesses the football — it keeps the Trojans’ speed, offensive athleticism and playmakers of their own off the field.
In his first career varsity start, and replacing last year’s Southeast District Division V Offensive Co-Player of the Year Drew Roe, Portsmouth senior quarterback Tyler Duncan completed 18-of-30 passes for 286 yards and four touchdowns —of which wide receiver Devon Lattimore made six receptions for 159 yards, and three of which went for TDs.
“The big question coming into tonight was how do we replace Drew Roe? Well, you don’t replace a Drew Roe. But you know what? We found a Tyler Duncan,” said Kalb, after the game. “Even some of the plays he was able to extend with his legs. I was really happy with his performance and the way he commands the offense. Really excited to see what this season holds for him.”
His longest was a 71-yard pitch-and-catch with Duncan, as the Trojans seized third-quarter control with 28 period points.
The Senators must also account for senior wideouts Reade Pendleton, Jayden Duncan and Nolan Heiland —perhaps Pendleton being the Trojans’ all-around most formidable threat.
“I think this team grew up a lot (against Valley). We had a lot of young kids on the field for the first time, but after a while we settled in and played our hearts out,” said Kalb.
“They have speed at every one of their skilled positions. You really can’t just lock down on one guy. They are good and they know what to do once they have the ball in their hands,’ said Gilliland, of the Trojans. “They have the ability to score on every play. It doesn’t matter to them 3rd-and-10 or 3-and-1, they are running the same style of offense, and it really makes it difficult to defend when they are spreading the field with four-wide or five-wide every play. You have to play defense from sideline to sideline, and guard against the deep passes that make it really tough.”
But, Portsmouth’s explosive plays can’t occur unless it has the football.
“Controlling the ball more and keeping Portsmouth’s offense off the field is definitely going to help, and give us a break on defense from chasing their guys around,” explained Gilliland. “With a guy like Ryan (Sissel), and our line, if we can get that running game going, it helps from a momentum and a conditioning standpoint.”
And, Friday’s forecast for possible inclement weather —with increased humidity and a chance of late-day thunderstorms —will be worth watching as well.
Thus, the setup for West and Portsmouth is similar, but will the winner be the same?
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved