Since the football programs in the Wheelersburg and Jackson communities began meeting on a yearly basis in 2012, there have been very few contests that are more anticipated across Southern Ohio than when the Pirates and the Ironmen have gotten together in their annual nonconference matchup, dubbed by many as the Apple Bowl.
That anticipation for the annual meeting between the two programs, however, has arguably never been higher than this week.
With Wheelersburg ranked as the No. 4 team in the Ohio AP Division V Football Poll behind its undefeated mark, and Jackson obtaining a 4-0 mark on its own en route to a No. 10 overall ranking in the Ohio AP Division III Football Poll, the stakes are certainly, at the very least, high as both teams will look to build upon what could end up being special seasons when the two highly-regarded units take each other on in what is expected to be another playoff-like atmosphere at Holzer Stadium in Jackson on Friday evening.
For Rob Woodward, preparing for a program of Jackson’s caliber takes nothing less than a grade-A effort. However, that effort is one that the Pirates — who have outscored their opponents by a staggering 173-26 margin in 2017 — have given in every game and in every practice.
“We, as a program, try to treat every single program that we face with the same amount of respect and the same amount of preparation,” Woodward said. “Having said that, we know that Jackson is a very formidable opponent. It’s the best offensive line that we’ve faced, which brings new challenges to us on the defensive line. There are a lot of new things that we’re going up against here, but again, that’s why we like to schedule Jackson. We know that we’re going to get a team who is going to come in, really respect the game, and play the game of football how it should be played. That’s what we sign up for. We’re competing against teams that will make us better, and Jackson has definitely made us better over the years.”
As mentioned, Jackson’s offensive line brings excellent size and strength to the table.
With guys like Steven Snyder (6-5, 275), Chucky Morris (6-3, 265), Hunter Skeens (6-3, 200) and Dusty Case (6-0, 295) among the individuals in the main rotation, the Ironmen have been able to use the aforementioned quartet, along with additional experienced bodies, to open up running lanes for a talented backfield that includes Blake McCoy (the team leader’s in rushing with 593 yards on 65 carries for an average of 9.1 yards per carry), Brice Graham, and Caleb Storms among others.
“The thing that jumps out at you is the offensive line, and the size that they have up front, especially at the tackle positions,” Woodward said. “Overall, they’re strong. They bring in some extra linemen in certain sets, and just really do a nice job controlling the tempo of the game with them. (Blake) McCoy does a really nice job of running the ball hard. He has a nice stride, and really gets up in the hole and runs well. He does a great job overall. Outside of McCoy, they have a bunch of other running backs who do a good job of providing some other options to go to as far as initiating and keeping you on your toes as a defense are concerned.”
When one factors in those standouts, stopping Jackson’s offense — which has scored 149 points through four games for an average of 37.25 points per contest — can be a tough challenge, even for a Wheelersburg defensive unit that has held opponents to 141 rushing yards on 105 carries and has seen 41 players make stops in 2017. However, Woodward expects the Pirates to approach the affair with the same mental mindset as they have in previous contests — which, as most have seen all year, tends to lend to positive results, to say the least.
“They’ve got guys that are really good at coming off of the football and who are good at creating a seam for their backs to run through,” Woodward said. “We’ve got to be able to hunker down, play our game, and do what we do. It comes down to disciplined football when you’re playing defense.”
Jackson, however, isn’t just a offensive show. In fact, the Ironmen have only allowed 27 points all season, with 20 of those coming last week against Division II Western Brown in a 49-20 victory. Jackson allowed just seven points to Fairfield Union, who sits with a 3-1 record overall, and blanked Wellston (35-0) and Gallia Academy (34-0) in its additional victories. And much like the offensive and defensive units, the Ironmen’s special teams units are also as solid as a rock, according to Woodward.
“Offensively, we’ve got to face a quick defensive line. They like to put some smaller guys out there at times on the defensive line, but they’ll be a fast, explosive group of kids who will fly around, try to get to (Trent Salyers) and swarm to contain our running backs. “As for their special teams, I’m really impressed with the job that their special teams unit has done. They’ve got a great kickoff coverage team, a good kick return team, and a good punt and punt return team. Their special teams units are as sound as you’ll find.”
The same, however, can be said about Wheelersburg. With dominating victories over Ironton (48-3), Fairland (37-6), Heath (41-0), and Bishop Watterson (47-17), the week-by-week commitment and dedication to getting better and reaching higher has been obvious — and it hasn’t changed even after the highs of defeating a Bishop Watterson program that had only lost by 30 or more points twice coming into last Friday’s affair.
“There’s been no difference,” Woodward said. “There seems to be a focused, but loose attitude by our kids. That’s something that I have really tried to work on myself as a head coach. We put a lot of pressure on these high school kids to maintain their grades in school, their chores at home, and, in addition to all of that, come out to practice every evening and be at the top of their game. We ask a lot out of them, and I have to take a step back and remember that as a coach sometimes.”
And while there have been many stars, including Tanner Holden, Dominic Reyes, Cole Lowery, and Xander Carmichael, among many others, Trent Salyers’ poise and leadership at the quarterback position has arguably been the biggest of the storylines surrounding a deep and highly talented Wheelersburg roster. Salyers threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of the Pirates’ 47-17 victory over the Eagles en route to a 417-yard, four-touchdown performance. The junior — a first-year starter at the quarterback position — has already thrown for 1,149 yards, 12 touchdowns, and four interceptions in 2017 in just four games at the helm.
“We’ve been very competitive all throughout our preseason at the quarterback position,” Woodward said. “However, we began to see some things out of Trent that allowed him to win that starting job. He’s really great at extending plays, he has played quarterback all throughout his years in our program, and he’s a student of the game. I really believe that he works to try to learn what he can do to improve himself and recognize what each position is doing out there. Trent makes his voice heard, and a lot of guys respect him, are proud of the way that he has taken hold of things and the way that he has handled the pressure. He recognizes that his job is to disperse to our athletes, and when it’s time, he’s going to make a good decision, get up the field, and keep the chains moving.”
Overall, the Apple Bowl has always proven to be a highly competitive and thrilling matchup that has brought out the best in both programs. And with a well-coached, Andy Hall-led Jackson team awaiting the Pirates on Friday, it is clear that Wheelersburg, like it has done all season long, will need to bring its very best to the table in order to emerge victorious on Friday evening in Jackson.
“We always go with the cliche, ‘Whoever takes care of the football and makes the least amount of mistakes is the team that will emerge as the winner,’” Woodward said. “However, that’s really the case in this game, all of the time. You’ve got to make sure that you are mentally and physically ready to go into a contest and battle. We expect nothing less from the Jackson Ironmen at a great venue and a great place in Southern Ohio to play. I’m sure it will be a packed house, and an exciting and electric atmosphere. Our kids are ready for that. We have that at home, and I really think that just ups our level of play. While it may intimidate some that aren’t used to it, our guys really thrive off of it, and that’s the kind of atmosphere that they desire to play in. It’s going to be a great football game Friday night, and both communities are going to come out in full force.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7