With the way that football is formatted in the State of Ohio, there have proven to be few things better than the late-season matchups that bring playoff atmospheres and tense moments that a playoff game would have.
If one were to choose a contest all across the Southeastern Ohio realm this season, there truly may not be a game with bigger playoff implications — so much so that it brings a playoff atmosphere and intensity to the table before the actual postseason begins — than the East Tartans and the Symmes Valley Vikings.
And if the matchup isn’t exciting enough, the following factors may prove to excite.
Both teams sit at 6-2 and 3-1 in the SOC I. Each program — through the leadership of James Gifford and Rusty Webb — have proven to have explosive offenses, with both teams scoring at least 33 or more points seven and six times, respectively, in 2017. And each program has past history in the playoffs — Symmes Valley in 2011 and 2014 and East in 2015 and 2016.
But even with their units currently outside of the playoff picture by less than several hundredths — or, in East’s case, several thousandths of a point — as the No. 9 and No. 10 overall units according to Joe Eitel’s latest playoff picture, Gifford and Webb are only worried about what their units can control going forward.
“Like always, we just stay focused on the opponent that we are playing for that week,” Gifford said. “We know for sure that we have Symmes Valley this week and Notre Dame next week. If we win both of those games, that would give us an 8-2 season and a second-place finish in the SOC I. That is not a bad season, for sure. We do believe that if we go 2-0 over the next two weeks, we’ll reach the playoffs, and if we do, we look forward to the opportunity.”
“We’ve always told our kids to only do what we can control,” Webb said.“This is obviously a game that has a lot of playoff points and implications, so we just have to take it one play at a time.”
On the East side of the coin, the Tartans, who fell by a 36-12 count to Oak Hill but have scored over 40 points in all six of its victories en route to its standout 6-2 mark, have been led by Brady Douthat, who has completed 61 of his 112 passes en route to amassing 1,028 yards for the year.
Of those 61 completed passes, an astonishing 20 of those—nearly a third of the senior’s entire completed pass attempts—have gone for scores. Douthat has only thrown five interceptions by contrast to make the 5-10, 185-pound quarterback’s ratio an impressive four-to-one for the year, and the senior quarterback has also rushed for an additional 275 yards on the ground to go along with four scores.
Not suprisingly, Douthat, as a result, is closing in on program history. The senior not only sits within two touchdowns of tying the school’s single season record for passing touchdowns in a season (Drew Lowe, 22, 2016) but total touchdowns for a season, as well (Justin Crager, 26, 2012).
“Brady does a great job for us,” Gifford said. “We have a lot of players who do well for us. It’s a team effort.”
But as Gifford referenced, it’s far from just a one-person show.
Kyle Flannery, who has 676 total all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017, heads several additional rock-solid all-purpose threats, which also include JD Hatcher (20 catches, 484 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and Ethan Gifford (39 carries, 317 yards, six touchdowns). Flannery, in particular, will be a huge asset to East after having to sit out the Tartans’ previous contest against Oak Hill due to a one-game suspension after being ejected against Eastern.
However, East has plenty of additional home run-hitting playmakers even behind the primary quartet. In fact, Ethan Carver, Mackie Kingery, Trace Smith, and Devon Stevens have all proven to be more than reliable rushing threats out of the backfield, as well, in 2017.
“I believe that’s what makes us a potentially great team,” Gifford said of the offensive firepower. “I don’t think we have seen how good we can actually be. It will be exciting when that happens.”
“East runs a lot of different formations, and they have a lot of weapons,” Webb said. “They can score from anywhere on the field at any time. They’re a very diverse offense in the fact that they that can run or throw the football. They also have a mobile quarterback (in Brady Douthat) that can run if you get out of your lanes. He is a dual-threat quarterback.”
Symmes Valley, however, has been awfully tough to handle on the offensive side of the football in its own right.
Since being shut out in consecutive weeks by Chesapeake and Oak Hill in Weeks 3 and 4, the Vikings have rushed for 304, 295, 401, and 276 yards in resounding victories over Green, Eastern, Notre Dame, and Manchester while averaging at least 6.1 yards per carry as a team in each affair. Layken Gothard, Derik Brace, and Keifer Wilson are among a host of Symmes Valley players who have starred with the rock in their hands, with that group also including Derek Crum and Austin Waugh.
“That’s what we try to do,” Webb said when emphasizing the need to give multiple guys rushing opportunities. “We want to be a multi-purpose offense in that yes, we are a very run-oriented offense, but it’s very hard to key on one guy. That’s what we used to be able to do in our wishbone, but our personnel has changed, so we adapted our offense to our kids. The philosophy, however, hasn’t changed.”
That balanced rushing attack, which has improved in effectiveness since Webb switched to the Wing-T from the wishbone, is a quality that Gifford is well aware of.
“Offensively, they like to run a Wing-T style offense,” Gifford said. “They are really good with the counters, traps, and QB follow. You always have to watch the play action pass as well. From a defensive standpoint, we like to call it a 4-4 scheme, but they walk up an outside linebacker on the tight end side, which gives it a five-man front.”
From a defensive standpoint, the Vikings have also improved on a week-by-week basis. With its 49-14 victory over Manchester, Symmes Valley gave up its third-lowest point total of the year, and have only allowed 62 points over the last four weeks for a 15.5 points per game average.
“You see the same things from (Rusty Webb’s) teams every year,” Gifford said. “They are a physical team who is very well-coached. Symmes Valley has a solid program, and every year, you know that they will play hard and be disciplined.”
“Our defense has gotten better each week,” Webb said. “We feel like we have gotten better on that side of the football. In addition to the defense, we’ve been very happy with the strides that the special teams unit has made. They’ve been getting better and better each week.”
East, however, is no slouch on the defensive side of the football either, as Ethan Gifford, along with fellow teammate Braiden Haney, have proven.
Overall, the pair have been nothing short of dominant over the course of the 2017 season, as Gifford and Haney have combined to collect 129 tackles, an astonishing 31 tackles for loss, and 13 sacks. The Tartans’ defense, however, will take a hit with the loss of Chandler Carver, who will serve a one-game suspension after being ejected for fighting against Oak Hill — a big loss considering that Carver has totaled 49 tackles and seven stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2017.
“As a coach, I would like to show that we are a disciplined football team that cares about doing things right,” Gifford said. “We have played very disciplined football this year with the exception of the last two weeks.”
With East trailing Woodsfield Monroe Central by just over five one-thousandths of a point and Symmes Valley not much farther behind — just over three one-hundredths back — both Gifford and Webb expect Willow Wood to be rocking on Friday evening.
“We believe that this will be a playoff atmosphere,” Webb said. “There are a lot of things on the line. East is going to bring a good crowd up, and we’re going to bring a good crowd. There should be a lot of energy, and we’re looking for a good football game.”
”We feel like if we play good, smart football, we can win the game,” Gifford said. “I want us to get back to being focused on the task at hand, play football with respect for the game, and with respect for the team that we are playing.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT