If you think about it, the blueprint to winning in football is pretty simple.
Play good defense, win the battles of special teams, and control the ball.
That philosophy is something Portsmouth West head coach Ben Johnson has preached to his team over his tenure with the Senators, and it’s paid off.
West finished the regular season 9-1 this year, and will host only their second playoff game in school history. The Senators last hosted a playoff game in 2008, a 26-7 win over Ridgewood.
With the type of season West has experienced, there’s a lot to take pride in and reason to believe the Senators can make a playoff run.
“Everybody has a lot of pride over here on the west side and they’re very proud of these boys, and so am I,” Johnson said. “We’re just thrilled that we get to continue our season, and it’s only the second time in school history we’ve hosted a playoff game so we’ve very excited about that opportunity.”
“It’s just a great privilege for us to be in this position. The guys have had an outstanding season, and any time you put together nine wins in a row it’s really a special deal.”
Getting to this position was due in large part to those three fundamentals outlined above.
First, West has played lights out defense over the course of the season. The Senators are giving up an average of 16 points per game, and have held their opposition under 10 points four times this year.
One of those opponents was 9-1 OVC champion Coal Grove, who West held to just seven points. The Senators also held 6-4 Fairland to just 18 points, which was their second lowest output of the season.
A big factor in that defensive success is the defensive line. Seniors Jakeb Guilkey and Brandon Weaver have dominated up front on defense, while also playing offensive line for West.
Guilkey has totaled 86 tackles this season, with 13 coming for a loss. He’s also racked up five sacks, two pass deflections and a forced fumble.
Weaver has caused havoc as well. The 6-1, 240 pound lineman has recorded 71 tackles himself, with 16 for a loss and five sacks. Weaver also added a pass deflection, a fumble recovery, and a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown.
Both Guilkey and Weaver, along with three other seniors up front, have gotten the job done on both the offensive line and defensive line. Fellow linemen Caleb Deaver, Kane Lewis and Jacob Hall have held it down up front all year long.
While the defensive line has been a huge contributor to the defense, the offensive line has been crucial for the offense as expected. The Senators are averaging 32.8 points per game, and the surge on the line of scrimmage has helped propel the seasons of players like Josh Berry, Garrett Hurd and Dylan Bradford.
“Our guys [up front] have had an outstanding year,” Johnson said. “They’ve just gotten better and better as the year has gone on, and they’ve really gelled and have great chemistry.”
“They’re what we’re going to have to lean on, and they’re going to have to continue being the foundation for us and let our guys fire out behind them and make plays.”
Thanks to the blocking up front, Hurd has rushed for 1,169 yards on an average of 6.1 yards per carry. The junior has also scored 12 total touchdowns on the season for West.
That offensive line has also given Bradford plenty of time to operate from his quarterback position. Bradford has accounted for nearly 1,500 yards of total offense and 18 total touchdowns.
With the quarterback and the running game clicking, that has opened up the playbook to involve wide receivers like Berry and Cody Staggs.
Berry has four offensive touchdowns, and has also excelled defensively. He has shown big play ability, averaging 21 yards per reception.
Like Berry, Staggs has been a threat from multiple positions as well. Staggs has three offensive touchdowns, and leads the team with five interceptions. The senior has also returned two of those picks for scores, and has a kickoff return and a punt return touchdown.
Which brings the basis for which the Senators like to play to the next point of emphasis: special teams.
“Special teams is something we’ve hung our hat on, and we’re going to have to continue to do that,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to try to make big plays in special teams.”
“We’ve done that this year, we’ve blocked a few punts, [and] returned a punt for a touchdown. Those are big plays that stand out, but even little things like providing good field position with great kickoffs and punt coverage.”
Senior Drew Cassidy has been the x-factor on special teams. He’s had 20 kickoffs go for touchbacks, and is near perfect on the season in extra points at 39 for 40 on the year.
Cassidy’s incredible numbers don’t stop there, as he’s punted 20 times for an average of 39 yards and a long of 56 this season. Five of those punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
On field goals, Cassidy is seven for nine with a long of 44 yards. He’s also played defense, recording 54 tackles (one for a safety) and an interception.
“Any time you start to get into playoff games or championship style games when you know you’re facing great opponents that play great offense and defense, you’ve got to try and find a way to somehow tilt the scales in to your advantage,” Johnson said.
The scales have certainly been tilted time and time again from the foot of Cassidy, who has played a big role in his first year with West.
Lastly, the final ingredient in Coach Johnson’s cookbook for winning this season has been the turnover margin. The Senators won the fight for turnovers in nearly every game, which is all a part of the process for the team.
“That’s part of our game plan every week, is to win that battle, take care of the ball ourselves, and get takeaways on defense,” Johnson said. “That’s the formula for winning. You look at it at any level, the team that wins the turnover battle most of the time comes out on top, and we’re definitely going to have to do that if we want to keep marching on.”
In the game against the Purple Riders, West will place a big emphasis on phase one and playing great defense, mainly because Martins Ferry has two big threats out of the backfield.
Dalton Hoover is the superstar, rushing for 1,408 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Hoover also plays linebacker, where he leads the team in tackles with 130.
“Dalton Hoover does stand out,” Johnson said. “He’s an outstanding running back as well as a linebacker on defense.”
The Senators will need to know where Hoover is on every snap, and will also need to locate running back Nate Boxley, who brings a lot of shiftiness to his spot on the field.
“He’s really quick as well and hard to bring down,” Johnson said on Boxley.
All in all, the Purple Riders are pretty comparable to the Portsmouth West Senators.
“They’re a real physical team,” Johnson said. “I feel like they’re kind of similar to us in a lot of ways. They really like to establish the run and control the line of scrimmage, so that’s going to be something that’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Those similarities have helped the preparation in practice for Martins Ferry.
“We haven’t played a lot of teams that have that style this season,” Johnson said. “But we feel like it’s kind of our style, and we’re used to it.”
Of course, the Purple Riders will emphasize all three of those formerly mentioned phases of the game. The winner might just be whoever can prevail in the aspects of defense, special teams and turnover margin.
West will play host to Martins Ferry on Friday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 pm.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer