SCIOTO COUNTY — As October is officially upon us, who would have thought that the Green Bobcats would have enjoyed an August and September to remember?
On the flip side, over the same time, it’s been a rather forgettable season so far for the talented and experienced — yet road-weary — Notre Dame Titans.
Yet, on any given Friday night —or in this case on Saturday night —fortunes can change with one football game, which are often dictated by turnovers, penalties, field position and possibly weather.
That said, two present states-of-mind for two Southern Ohio Conference Division I squads take center stage on Saturday night, as the 6-0 Bobcats travel to face the 2-4 Titans —with both SOC I and Division VII Region 27 playoff positioning at stake.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and inside what could be a rainsoaked Spartan Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, given the anticipated Saturday forecast — for the remnants of Hurricane Ian arrive.
For the Homecoming Titans, come rain or shine or even wind, after playing five of their opening six games on the road —and with last week’s loss at 4-2 Northwest being the only one within an almost two-hours one-way drive —they are elated to be back at home.
Their only other home contest to date this year was their 55-0 shutout over overwhelmed Fisher Catholic —a month ago.
The Titans won at Zanesville Rosecrans by a reciprocal 62-26 count, but suffered long-trip road losses at 2-4 and Division IV Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (42-24), at 5-1 and Division VI Berne Union (26-14), and at 4-2 and fellow Division VII Meigs Eastern (12-7).
“The long road trips were bad, I will be honest. They were tough,” said NDHS coach Bob Ashley, following last week’s game at Northwest. “But our goal now from here on out is 4-0.”
Speaking of undefeated, the Bobcats are 6-0, have posted two shutouts including last week over defending division champion Symmes Valley (21-0), and already have clinched only their third winning season since 1991.
The most recent was four years ago —the last time the Bobcats qualified for the state playoffs.
This season, critics will complain about Green’s schedule —as Fairfield Christian, Ridgedale and Southern are all 2-4, Ashland Fairview (Ky.) is 1-5, Symmes Valley is 1-4, and Fisher Catholic is winless.
But, the Bobcats —from freshmen and sophomores two years ago to experienced juniors and seniors this season —don’t, and shoudn’t, apologize for their start.
According to third-year head coach Chad Coffman, these successful six weeks so far haven’t happened just within the past two months.
The program was heavily impacted by injuries, low numbers and the coronavirus situation the past two years.
“It’s been a longer process than just six weeks this year. We’ve faced a lot of challenges and adversity, not having a lot of kids out and not playing full seasons the past two years because of COVID. But those two years laid out the groundwork for us, to let us know what work needed done to get better and told us how we needed to change the culture. It was never our goal to 6-0, or even 10-0. Let’s try to work extremely hard on us and the results will become whatever they are,” said Coffman, in an interview on Tuesday. “The kids have been coachable, they’ve worked hard, we’ve been fortunate with numbers and injuries this year, and so far that has paid off for us with winning games.”
It’s also paid off in terms of recognition —as the Bobcats have been ranked each and every week through the first four Associated Press Division VII statewide polls.
They’ve garnered more media attention around Southeastern Ohio, and especially in Region 27, where they sit second —albeit a distant — to Newark Catholic in the latest Ohio High School Athletic Association computer ratings.
However, they know their work is far from finished —as the Bobcats face perhaps their most difficult test to date, despite the Titans’ 2-4 record.
Notre Dame does have talent and experience, despite disappointing some observers at least —given its graduation of only three players, and after opening 5-0 last season and finishing 7-3.
The Titans’ 2021 turnaround aided in Ashley earning Ohio Division VII Coach of the Year, but these road-warrior Titans just haven’t found that same level of success.
Perceived by some as possible favorites for the SOC I championship, Notre Dame didn’t have the ball much at all at Northwest —which rolled to a 48-18 win, and seized an early lead in the league’s championship chase.
“We played them about as well as we could, but they just have that type of offense that is ball control and moves the chains on you and keeps the ball away from you and suits their personnel to a ‘T’,” said Ashley, of Northwest.
So too do the run-oriented Bobcats, which have crafted multiple double-digit scoring drives in their victories themselves—including a pair of 13-play marches against Symmes Valley, as each consumed at least seven minutes off the clock, along with covering at least 83 yards.
Nathaniel Brannigan, a junior, surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season last week —as he has carried the bulk of the Bobcats’ rushes.
Landan Lodwick, Trevor Sparks, Blake Smith and even quarterback Abe McBee are getting their fair share of significant carries as well.
Notre Dame’s defense, as it often faces running units, must be able to get possession stops.
“Green is going to be a tough opponent,” said Ashley, after last week. “We have to come in, correct some mistakes, clean some things up and just have a solid week of practice coming up.”
And, avoid any issues otherwise —as, along Internet message boards, there were rumors and pure speculation of possible player suspensions for Saturday night, due to disciplinary reasons.
Regardless of the Titans’ struggles so far, Coffman knows the challenge Notre Dame presents —spearheaded by junior running back Gavin Hart.
“We have our work cut out for us. It’s a difficult task ahead with Notre Dame. They are a very talented team,” said the coach. “They have a lot of kids back from last year, a lot of dynamic, dangerous, explosive players that can make big plays at any time. They were picked by a lot of people to win the league. They run the ball with the wing-T extremely well with the (Gavin) Hart kid. They can throw the ball with a lot of success when they need to. They will be the most complete team we’ve played so far.”
And, perhaps the club with the most sense of urgency.
The Titans are only 14th in the Region 27 computer ratings, as the top 16 teams in each region at regular’s season end qualify for the playoffs.
Notre Dame does own a 32-9 all-time series advantage over Green, but these Bobcats are far from your run-of-the-mill group —given the program’s general lack of success over the last three decades.
The Bobcats enjoyed an August and September to remember, while the Titans’ two months were ones to forget.
Just how will October and even November shake out for these two?
Saturday night amid the likely rain, and maybe mud, may be a telling tale.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done so far, but we’re a long way from where we want to ultimately go. This is a very good Notre Dame team in spite of their record. They are going to be ready for us,” said Coffman. “We have to match their intensity, match their physicality, continue to be sound defensively and continue to execute and play mistake-free football offensively.”