SCIOTO COUNTY — On paper, entering Friday night — and the final day of most definitely a September to remember — the West Senators appear to be on a rushing roll.
The Senators, short of an undefeated season so far by a single solitary point at Fairland, are 5-1 with five consecutive victories —four of which came at the refurbished “Rock”, as part of a rare four-game homestand.
Of course, West was away from home for 13 consecutive games before that, while its facility underwent an overhaul and upgrade to a brand-spanking new FieldTurf surface.
On the field itself, with the defense doing its job for the overwhelming majority; with the offensive line playing a physical brand of football; with Ryan Sissel running directly downhill and amassing carries, yards and touchdowns; with Jeffery Bishop burning defenders for big pass plays from senior quarterback Mitchell Irwin, it’s basically been a West side thrill ride.
However, at least recently, one speed bump in that road for the Senators has been the Minford Falcons —with Minford winning the past three meetings, and all three by at least 19 points apiece (33-14 in 2019, 35-14 in 2020 and 41-21 in 2021).
But, comparing scores and comparing past history mean mostly nothing —as West will try to snap one losing streak, while keep a winning one going at the same time.
Minford, meanwhile, is 4-2 —but is an underdog inside its Falcons’ Nest, given two difficult outings in the past three weeks with identical 42-0 defeats.
West (1-0 SOC II) meets Minford (0-1 SOC II) in another Southern Ohio Conference Division II tilt, as both squads seek to remain within striking distance of defending division champion Wheelersburg —while the matchup marks also a major computer points pickup to the winner.
Kickoff inside Minford’s Falcons’ Nest is set for 7 p.m., as West’s experienced seniors are 0-3 against Minford coach Jesse Ruby —and standout Falcon linebacker Hunter Pendleton.
In an interview on Wednesday with West second-year head coach Todd Gilliand, the Senators’ offensive coordinator in the two meetings prior to last year, he said his seniors are motivated for the Falcons — given the recent rough history.
But that bigger picture, it’s simply the next game on the West side’s schedule.
“They (West seniors) are definitely motivated, but the thing we’re focusing on, like each week with them, we need to be 1-0. These guys know they’ve struggled with Minford and they want to get that off their shoulders, but they’ve done a good job of being focused all year and executing our gameplan,” said Gilliland. “We have to do what we need to do to win, no matter who is across from us. With the league games, there are more rivalry games, but West and Minford is always a big ballgame, no matter what has happened the first six weeks of the season.”
What has happened in the first six weeks is West playing physical and imposing its will —beginning with its well-played 34-7 win at Portsmouth.
Last week — against reloading Waverly which was the SOC II runner-up in 2018, 2019 and again last year sandwiched around a championship campaign two years back —the Senators surged out to leads of 21-0, 27-7 and finally 41-21, before withstanding the Tigers’ roaring comeback bids of 27-21, 41-35 and finally 49-42.
The Falcons, conversely, opened up an expected 3-0 —but lost to a tall, talented and athletic Washington Court House team, two weeks before struggling at Wheelersburg.
Minford fell 42-0, as the run-oriented Pirates played perhaps their most complete game of the season in all three phases —and rushed for 301 yards with 18 first downs.
That doesn’t bode well for the Falcons, facing a fast yet bruising back like Sissel — who has enjoyed multiple 200-yard and 25-plus carry games.
In an interview on Tuesday, Ruby discussed what went wrong with Wheelersburg —with the Pirates able to exploit the Falcons’ mistakes.
“Wheelersburg was very good at exploiting things. We need to play much better assignment football, and that we fit well together as a team when we’re setting up our defense. It wasn’t just one player, but it may have been one player on that one play that didn’t fit in the scheme properly,” said Ruby. “And sometimes, hey, give credit to Wheelersburg’s kids. They opened up some holes, they were very physical and very quick. That part we can’t fix today.”
But, Minford must solve some issues ahead of seeing Sissel —running behind a physical West front.
Then, don’t forget about Bishop on the receiving end of Irwin aerials deep downfield.
Bishop burned both Portsmouth and Waverly, arguably the Senators’ two toughest opponents to date, with touchdown strikes early on.
Ruby is well-aware of West’s weapons, and the necessity to slow them down.
“It’s going to be a challenge. I don’t think anybody has slowed them down other than themselves. They could have easily won the Fairland game, and be coming in here 6-0. They are playing very well,” he said. “They are very physical up front, and are even better up front from at least what I see on film, than I anticipated. That’s a credit to their kids and their coaching staff. I knew how good Sissel, Bishop and Irwin are, just from playing them in the past. But I still feel like their level of play has increased. It’s something that we have to step up and meet their level of intensity when they bring it. If not, we’ll take another loss.”
To tackle Sissel, the Falcons must hit him low and not high, wrap him up at the waist and legs — and ultimately gang-tackle him to get him to the ground.
If not, the six-foot and one-inch and 220-pound senior is a boatload to bring down —as he also succeeds in shedding tackles, and picking up or even erupting for yards after initial contact.
“If you want to keep him (Sissel) bottled up, you have to hit him early. If he gets a head of steam, you’re probably not going to bring him down. He is so explosive and gets downhill so fast, you have to fit into the scheme properly, and keep him from that going in that downhill motion,” said Ruby. “If not, he is very hard to stop.”
Naturally, West wants to run right at the younger Falcons with Sissel.
But unlike last season’s game, in which the Senators made multiple mistakes in the Falcons’ 41-21 triumph at Valley High School, Gilliland said the club’s key is to finish possessions with points.
“We did have a couple turnovers, but off the top of my head, we were in the red zone five or six times against them last year, and came away with zero points,” he said. “That can’t happen in order to beat a good team. You have to put points on the board when the opportunity arises. We have to finish off those drives, we have to win the turnover and field position battles, and we can’t have silly penalties. When you go out to Minford, you have to play a clean game, because you are getting their best shot.”
Speaking of shots, the Falcons’ fourth play from scrimmage took one at Wheelersburg —with a wide open Jeffrey Pica racing downfield, and not a single Pirate defender within 20 yards.
But unfortunately for the Falcons and Pica, he dropped a surefire touchdown reception, and as Newfound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here.
Although, the 5-9 and 210-pound junior Pica presents the Falcons’ running threat —as he will surely see a similar number of touches to Sissel.
Stopping Pica before he gets started, Gilliland explained, is the Senators’ utmost defensive priority.
“We have to get a lot of hats to the ball, and not just arm-tackle him (Pica). You have to really stick him and run your feet and wrap up. He is a strong running back that will bounce off of arm tackles. We really have to swarm the ball,” he said. “It’s our goal every week to make another team one-dimensional. We want contain their running game, forced them into some long down-and-distance situations. Get them in third-and-long or second-and-long and get them off track of their offensive schedule.”
Speaking of schedules, with West at five wins and Minford at four, the winner gains a good amount of Ohio High School Athletic Association computer points — in Division V and Region 19.
In fact, with 16 teams qualifying in each region now, and if the playoffs opened today, the Falcons (12th at 4-2 and 5.3667 computer points average) would play at West (5th at 5-1 and 8.3833 CPA) in the opening round.
But that could be, and would be, then.
For the here and now of Friday night, the Senators’ steamrolling of a season seeks to continue —as Minford aims to make it four in a row over West, while getting itself back on track.
“There’s a lot on the line, conference-wise and playoff-wise, so it’s definitely a big ballgame for our guys. But the focus is on this week,” said Gilliland. “We can’t look past this week, because it’s all we can control.”
“We have been focusing on improving ourselves to prepare for this game. The last three games with West are irrelevant come Friday night. Every game in the SOC II is a tough game. If you can not make mistakes, you can play with just about anybody in this league. We have to show up and it’s going to take a whole team effort,” said Ruby. “We can’t rely on Jeffrey Pica on offense or Hunter Pendleton on defense to make every play. It’s got to be everybody playing their assignments, reading their keys, being disciplined, flying to the football and gang-tackling and matching their physicality.”