PORTSMOUTH — Apparently, Ironton’s march to an another undisputed Ohio Valley Conference football championship will in fact get a week-10 challenge.
And, if the Portsmouth Trojans turn over the apple cart in Friday night’s regular-season finale, then the league will feature co-champions for this 2022 campaign.
Indeed, every OVC club chased the talented and highly-touted Fighting Tigers —and every team came up short, although visiting Gallia Academy (7-2, 4-2 OVC) almost pulled the upset (29-22 loss) off a week ago.
That means it’s up to the Trojans to try and knock undefeated Ironton off, as the Fighting Tigers invade Trojan Coliseum —for the renewal of the second-oldest high school football rivalry in the entire state.
Indeed, 9-0 Ironton (6-0 OVC) and 6-3 Portsmouth (5-1 OVC) play for the OVC championship —as kickoff is set for 7 p.m., with potential playoff placements in the Division V Region 19 field also at stake.
The matchup marks the 131st time, including the state playoffs, the two Ohio River rivals have squared off —as Ironton owns, only by four wins including in the regular season and again in the Region 19 quarterfinals last year —a slim 63-60-7 advantage in the all-time series.
The long-running series started first in 1902, and many of the meetings have been epic —although the Fighting Tigers have won four consecutive, including a hard-fought 17-6 Region 19 quarterfinal in Tanks Memorial Stadium in Ironton a year ago.
It’s actually believed, by some observers and historians, to be the third longest-running series in the state —with Troy and Piqua and Massillon Washington and Canton McKinley being the oldest pair.
Portsmouth last won four years ago in head coach Bruce Kalb’s first season, as the Trojans — trailing 21-0 at halftime — truly reversed course, and erupted for five unanswered second-half touchdowns en route to that memorable 35-28 final.
However, these Fighting Tigers and Trojans have taken different paths to reach this coveted position on Friday night.
Ironton entered the season with a number of talented newcomers, incomers and experienced returnees, including three players — running back Jaquez Keyes to the University of Wisconsin, linebacker Trevor Carter to the University of Cincinnati, and wide receiver Ty Perkins also to the University of Cincinnati — already verbally committed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
The Trojans, on the other hand, had numerous up-front positions to replace —plus the Division V Southeast District Offensive Co-Player of the Year in quarterback Drew Roe.
Kalb, in an interview on Wednesday with The Portsmouth Daily Times, discussed his Trojans “living up to their potential”.
“We knew we had a lot to replace from last year, but we knew what this group’s potential was, and this group has realized that potential,” said the coach. “It’s hard to say what did I expect as far as wins-losses and performance, but I knew this team’s potential. I knew it had a lot of work to get there, but I think this team has realized its potential and continues to do so. This senior class had a goal of playing for an OVC championship and playing for a home playoff game in week 11. All the things that we’ve wanted to do, we’ve managed to keep within our grasp and now here we are with week 10, doing just that.”
So far, for the most part, pretty darn good for the Trojans.
All senior quarterback Tyler Duncan has done in replacing Roe is throw for 24 touchdowns to date with 2,172 yards —completing 168 of 262 passes for a 64-percent completion rate and only four interceptions.
He has also rushed for 330 yards and seven scores on 69 carries, as Brenden Truett (37 carries for 240 yards and four TD) and Beau Hammond (87 carries for 258 yards and three TD) have shared shouldering the running workload since OVC action began.
There are four receivers with at least 25 receptions and 154 yards, but Reade Pendleton far and away leads the foursome at 654 yards and seven touchdowns.
However, the Trojans — albeit battle-tested with losses to 8-1 West, 6-1 Spring Valley in West Virginia and 7-2 Gallia Academy on a late field goal— haven’t faced a roster like Ironton’s, both deep and talented on both sides of the ball.
The Fighting Tigers, in the Associated Press Division V statewide poll, have been either top-ranked or second-ranked to Coldwater all season.
Ironton has won the past three OVC championships outright, and clinched at least a share of a fourth —following a tough affair against Gallia Academy a week ago.
Kalb concurred all other OVC teams were chasing the Fighting Tigers’ tails, and still are, but is glad his Trojans have the last —and perhaps best —shot at them.
“You look on paper, Ironton has built a lot of momentum, their numbers are through the roof right now, and they’ve put together a good program. But then you look at the tradition that is Portsmouth vs. Ironton, it’s a game where you know you’re going to get some tough football played between these two,” he said. “It’s been pretty neck-and-neck. Portsmouth and Ironton, it’s a rivalry game, throw the records out.”
Still, Portsmouth has to execute in order to win —in all three phases of the game.
“Offensively, we have to be able to run the ball consistently. Our line is going to have to have a big day. Ironton is undefeated, but the teams that have had some success have done so on the ground. The back end of their defense is one of the fastest we’ll see all year. Some different formations, some different types of plays and personnel looks, I think we have a pretty good gameplan going into this week. Defensively, we have to limit the big play. Ironton has a lot of playmakers on offense,” said Kalb. “Then special teams, we need to make sure those aren’t momentum killers for us. We have to be alert, and not lulled to sleep with onside kicks or kick returns.”
In other words, the Trojans can’t let the Fighting Tigers seize momentum — and keep it.
“The biggest strength of Ironton, and people can talk about their athletes, defense and offense, but how they capture and seize momentum, they do a good job of that and the next thing you know, a quick score can turn into two or three quick scores,” said Kalb.
But, ball control could be the Trojans’ best defense against Ironton’s offense —and athleticism.
“Time of possession is going to be key. We have to make sure we keep that clock running, not punting after going three-and-out,” said Kalb. “The best defense is keeping playmakers off the field.”
Speaking of the field, Ironton is the top-ranked team in the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Region 19 computer ratings — while Portsmouth sits eighth, and in line for a home game.
The top 16 in each region qualify for the state playoffs at regular season’s end, while the top eight in each region earn opening-round home tilts.
Per the unofficial yet respected rankings website www.joeeitel.com, Ironton will finish as one of the top-two seeds, while Portsmouth plays anywhere from three thru eighth with a win — and anywhere from seventh thru 10th with a loss.
Portsmouth’s sparkling Trojan Coliseum has never hosted a Trojan playoff game per se —as it opened in 2009.
This Trojan senior class is aiming to alter that history, and also amass a share of the OVC championship —which would also be a program first.
Indeed, Ironton is aiming on another undefeated OVC title — but these Trojans truly have other ideas.
“These boys are excited about playing Ironton. That’s something that’s drilled into you as a Trojan for the time you are young. Portsmouth and Ironton is one of the greatest football rivalries in the state of Ohio, and you get to be a part of it,” said Kalb. “A lot of excitement and energy right now, and the focus is where we need it to be. It’s just going to come down to execution and giving it everything we have.”