Over the first three games of the 2017 season, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ football program has been nothing short of dominant.
They’ve outscored their opponents (Ironton, Fairland, Heath) by a total of 126-9. They’ve collected over 400 yards of offense in each affair while holding the trio to 386 yards combined (129 yards per game average). And the decision to start Trent Salyers at the quarterback position has looked like nothing short of a genius move with the junior collecting 732 yards and eight touchdown passes while completing 61 percent of his passes in 2017.
However, the Pirates, who entered the inaugural version of the 2017 Division AP Poll as the No. 4-ranked team in Ohio, will be put to arguably, if not undoubtedly, its toughest test of the season when Wheelersburg plays host to Division III Columbus Bishop Watterson on Friday evening at Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg.
For Rob Woodward, hosting the Eagles — who have collected four state titles at the OHSAA level (1966, 1972, 2002, and 2010) — is a test that the veteran head coach believes that the Pirates need to have if it wants to play deep into November and early December going forward.
“Watterson is a storied program in Division III,” Woodward said. “They’re always putting together good football teams, and they understand what it takes to prepare for football games, and win. They may be 1-2, but their two losses are to two really good football teams (Olentangy Orange and Walsh Jesuit), so their record is deceiving. We’ve been wanting to improve our schedule, and when there are teams that you can try to compete with, challenge, and get your team ready (for conference play and the postseason), it’s always a good thing. This will be a great test for our kids.”
And honestly, there may not be a better time for Wheelersburg to face such a test. The Pirates, who rolled over a formidable opponent by drubbing Heath, 41-0, in a road bout, collected 477 yards of total offense while holding the Bulldogs to just 100 yards total over the duration of the contest.
In that victory, the junior tandem of Salyers and Tanner Holden were absolutely electric once again, with Salyers finding Holden for 50, 63, and 34 yard touchdown passes — all coming within the first 12:20 of the contest — in the blowout win. Salyers finished with 378 total yards and four touchdowns to just one interception on the evening while completing 65 percent of his passes (13-of-20), while Holden collected nine receptions for 227 yards and all three of Salyers’ passing touchdowns on the evening.
“Offensively, we were definitely clicking,” Woodward said. “(Offensive coordinator Tom) Kaskey did a great job of capitalizing on what (Heath’s defense) gave us and finding different ways to exploit and take advantage of different situations. Of course, it’s always nice to have a big receiver out there to be able to make connections with. Tanner Holden did an outstanding job.”
As good as the passing attack has been, the rushing attack has been just as potent. Overall, Wheelersburg has collected 569 yards on exactly 100 carries for an average of 5.69 yards a pop. Every Pirate that has received multiple carries has at least a 4.5 yards per rush average or more behind an offensive line that has brought a nasty mentality to the football field.
“We spread it around,” Woodward said. “We’ve got five or six guys that have just been racking up yards. Our goal, every week, has been to rack up around 150 yards rushing. Trent (Salyers) has been great at running with the football from the quarterback position, Dominic Reyes has been outstanding, and Evan Horsley, Makya Matthews, and Cole Lowery have all carried the ball for us some. Mack Dyer has been running out of different formations, as well. We’re going to try to continue to spread the ball around. Our guys are not selfish in terms of having certain stats. They just want to see us obtaining more points than the other team in the final box score.”
The offense, however, hasn’t been alone in the party.
Defensively, 35 guys have made at least one tackle for the Pirates, with 23 of those 35 guys collecting multiple stops for a unit that has already collected eight sacks and 15 quarterback hurries in 2017. That pressure has led to five interceptions and three forced fumbles (two recovered) by the Wheelersburg defensive unit, which can go two and even three-deep at most positions without much, if any, fall off.
“We’ve had teams that have tried to throw the football out on the perimeter against us, and we’ve had teams that have tried to run the football against us,” Woodward said. “Our guys are doing an outstanding job of getting into the backfield and disrupting plays, whether it be for a tackle for loss or a sack. We’ve been repping a lot of different players on the defense trying to keep bodies fresh. Guys aren’t being selfish. They just want to see those shutouts. Our guys know the goals that we have set for them, and they’re striving to achieve those goals.”
If there is one thing that a person, even nitpicking around, could find that Wheelersburg may need to improve on, it is the overall penalties. The Pirates had 10 flags for 95 yards against Heath last week.
“Too many penalties, for sure,” Woodward said. “We have a wide-open offense with a lot of new faces. We’re three games into the regular season with a lot of new faces in different faces, so we’re still trying to perfect things. We understand that it’s not going to be perfect, and we knew that it wouldn’t be perfect in Week 1, Week 2, or Week 3, even. But we do have to start dialing it in and getting better here, especially with Bishop Watterson coming in.”
And one thing’s for sure — Bishop Watterson is a team that can make an opponent pay for those mistakes, as their talent, and overall size, is certainly not to be slept on.
The Eagles are led by a 35-man senior class (in a roster of 77 overall) that includes Kyle Simmonds, a 6-4, 280-pound tackle, Nick DePalma, a 6-0, 185-pound running back, and a slew of rangy 6-2-plus athletes on the perimeter, including 6-4, 220-pound Perry Finnegan and 6-2, 195-pound wide receiver Nate Meyer — the latter being the son of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer — among others.
Those athletes, among numerous others, have starred for a program that has shown its competitiveness throughout the 2017 season. Even though Watterson is 1-2 on the year, that competitiveness has been seen and noted across the state realm, as a 22-0 loss to Division I Olentangy Orange — who is 3-0 with 32-7 and 31-7 victories over Division II Worthington Kilbourne and Division I Dublin Jerome — and a 37-34, double overtime loss to Division II Walsh Jesuit — who dropped a pair of bouts to Division II Mayfield (10-0) and Division III Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (28-8), a combined 5-1 overall — would indicate.
“They’re a big-sized team, but really, it’s a lot of what we do,” Woodward said of their offensive and defensive schemes. “They run multiple formations, they really try to spread the football around, single some receivers up, and run some zone-read options along with some power running techniques where they’ll pull the guards and kick out. They’ve got a nice offensive line, and their left tackle (Kyle Simmonds) is an outstanding kid that will be playing some college football somewhere. Defensively, they run a 4-2-5, which is the same as us, and they adjust in many of the same ways that we do. We’ve got to try to hunker down and recognize what we feel they’re doing, and what their defense can try to take away so we can try to exploit that. They’ve really got some nice size all across their lineup. (Nick DePalma) does a good job and runs the football very hard. We’ve got to make sure we’re accounting for all of these bodies and getting after it ourselves.”
However, when both teams kick off matters on Friday evening, the records and the stats won’t mean a thing — because the victory will be obtained by whoever plays the most disciplined and structured football.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re sound on the offensive side of the football, and defensively, we’ve got to continue to step up and prepare,” Woodward said. “And I’m telling you, the kids are doing an outstanding job this week preparing. I really like where the team is at, in terms of their Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday practices. We’ll fine-tune a few things (tonight/Thursday evening), and hopefully, we’re still on all cylinders on Thursday and will carry that intensity into Friday night.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7