If you can’t remember the last time the Wheelersburg Pirates lost a Southern Ohio Conference Division II football tilt, then you likely aren’t alone.
That said, you likely won’t remember the last time the Minford Falcons defeated the Pirates, either.
However, with Wheelersburg off to its worst five-game start in recent memory, the undefeated Falcons have an opportunity to end those pair of dubious streaks on Friday night – as 5-0 Minford hosts the 2-3 Pirates in an all-important and highly-anticipated SOC II opener.
In fact, it can be argued it’s the most important matchup in all of Southeastern Ohio this week.
Kickoff at Minford High School is set for 7 p.m.
In answer to the original two questions, the Pirates last lost an SOC II affair in 2013 – a division winning streak that stretches a massive and impressive 21 games.
In addition, a full decade (2009) has passed since Minford last defeated Wheelersburg.
But nobody can likely remember – without looking it up online – when the tradition-rich Pirates last started 2-3, and perhaps showing signs of vulnerability despite their three losses to teams with a combined mark of 13-2.
“We’ve scheduled those teams that are extremely challenging to raise our level of play and get us ready to attack the SOC. What we haven’t done well in the three losses is execution,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “We haven’t been lined up right in situations on defense, we haven’t been disciplined in our play, taking poor angles and thus bad tackling. We need to do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage. Our offensive gameplan needs to take pressure off our defense. All three games we lost we basically played on our side of the 50. Our offense can be our best defense, but we have to execute better in all three phases. We just didn’t play the way we needed to play against good opponents like that. We just have to move forward and make adjustments.”
Indeed, don’t tell fourth-year Minford coach Jesse Ruby about the Pirates being “down” this season.
In fact, he believes the highly-touted Pirates are the best team his Falcons have faced to date – and are indeed the SOC II champions until they are defeated.
Wheelersburg has lost to three teams by at least 20 points, but that trio of 4-1 Ironton (30-6), 4-1 Columbus Hartley (44-6) and undefeated Jackson (35-15) just happens to be three of the best programs in the south central quadrant of the state.
“Wheelersburg has been the best team in the conference for years. They have been undefeated in the conference for five seasons in a row. In my opinion, they are still the best team in the conference until someone proves otherwise, despite their three loses this season. The teams they have lost to this year have a combined record of 13-2,” said Ruby. “Wheelersburg, even though they are 2-3, is a very good football team. They will be the best team we have faced by far.”
Although, despite their quality wins over Ashland (34-33 in overtime) and Greenup County (38-7), the Pirates haven’t been completely healthy this season, which impacted them in their losses against Ironton and Hartley.
Then last week, while perhaps the healthiest Wheelersburg has been all season, the Pirates allowed almost 300 rushing yards and committed three critical turnovers in their 35-15 loss at Jackson.
That was actually only the Ironmen’s second victory against the Pirates since that series restarted in 2012 – with the other coming five years ago in 2013 in a road trip to Ed Miller Stadium.
The Pirates got burned on a 54-yard touchdown run by Jackson freshman Jacob Winters on the opening play of the second half, then were the victims of a pair of Evan Spires fourth-quarter “pick-sixes”.
In all, Jackson scored 21 of its 35 points off Wheelersburg turnovers.
“We had poor execution in all three phases last week. We were trying to change up a few things, but we got down 14 points in the first quarter. We tried to rally and make some adjustments, but Jackson did a great job of adjusting on their part and having different things ready for us,” said Woodward. “Moving forward, we have to make adjustments in the areas we were exposed in and clean things up.”
For one, Ruby isn’t counting on the Pirates to make the same self-inflicted mistakes as they did a week ago.
Instead, he is depending on his Falcons to play solid defense, keeping Wheelersburg’s many offensive play-makers – primarily Makya Matthews – in check.
“In the last game, Jackson was able to capitalize on a few mistakes that Wheelersburg made. But defending Wheelersburg is extremely challenging due to the number of weapons they have on offense,” said Ruby. “They run a lot of different formations, they can run the football with many different players and they have many skilled receivers. Their quarterback is well-coached in where to put the football. They do a lot of things offensively to put the opposing defense in a bind.”
Woodward said Minford does the same thing – with the likes of its fast-paced high-powered spread offense engineered by left-handed quarterback Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis.
Vogelsong-Lewis has completed 35-of-60 passes for 648 yards and six touchdowns, while rushing for 506 yards and four TD on 60 attempts.
Meanwhile, senior running back Ty Wiget has simply ran wild this season – to the tune of 880 yards and a dozen scores on 107 carries.
The Falcons’ top receiver is Drew Skaggs with 250 yards on 11 receptions.
“Minford is a mirror of what we try to do,” said Woodward. “Their quarterback and running back are really good and they have the ability to run out of any formation. They can go either way with running or passing, and those guys do a lot of damage with their feet. We have prepared this week in practice for a system that looks a lot like ourselves.”
But what Minford doesn’t need, nor help Wheelersburg out by turning the football over – or make other mistakes.
The Falcons, despite winning 28-21 at East Clinton last week, were guilty of five turnovers – three interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Ruby said his squad started the year by limiting its miscues, but has committed eight turnovers in the past two weeks, while also being flagged for too many penalties and missing too many tackles.
“We started the year off really well by playing team football and limiting our own mistakes. In the first three games, we played sound defense, committed very few penalties, punted once per game, and only turned the ball over once. The attention to the little things allowed us to play at a high level in those first three weeks. The past two weeks have been a different story as we have made too many mistakes – too many penalties, too many missed tackles and too many turnovers,” said the coach. “The good thing is our players were able to overcome adversity and still find a way to win in the past two games.”
But against Wheelersburg, those same mistakes will result in a loss.
“Taking care of the football is extremely important. Any time you have more turnovers than your opponent, you are at a disadvantage. We need to limit our own mistakes – missed assignments, penalties and turnovers to be successful in this game. If we fail to do that, we will be in for a long night. We have to be able to maintain our blocks, take care of the football, and play as mistake-free as possible to give us the best chance to win,” said Ruby. “That goal is something we preach each and every week.”
What Ruby also preaches each and every week is that the next opponent on the Falcons’ schedule is Minford’s most important of the season.
However, it’s difficult to ignore what’s at stake for both teams – as Friday night marks a playoff-points bonanza for the winner.
Both teams are members of Division V, Region 19, as the Falcons (9.65) are top-ranked and the Pirates are seventh (6.05) in the second release of the official Ohio High School Athletic Association football computer ratings released on Tuesday.
The top eight teams in each region qualify for the playoffs – with the top four squads earning first-round home bouts.
Minford is also the seventh-ranked club in the third release of the Associated Press Ohio high school football poll for Division V.
More times than not, the top spot in the Region 19 computer ratings and a top-10 ranking the Division V AP poll belong to Wheelersburg – but not this season, so far.
Although, it can all change on Friday for the Pirates, but then again, the Falcons can snap a pair of infamous streaks involving Wheelersburg.
“One thing that we talk about each and every week is that we treat each week as if it is the most important game of the year. Every game has playoff points. Aside from the distractions from the outside, we try to treat every opponent as they are the best team we have faced to this point in the year. This week is no different from the opponents we faced weeks one thru five,” said Ruby. “We have to focus on ourselves and work to improve how we have played in our most recent games. That goal is our focus each and every week.”
The Pirates’ first focus, Woodward said, regardless of record, is defending their SOC II championship.
Which is something they’ve done an outstanding job of – given it has been six seasons since they last lost a league game.
“We know the SOC teams especially raise their level of play against us and circle us on their calendar. We just approach it as the next opponent, knowing and expecting to get their best shot. We don’t worry about our past or our future, we only worry about that week’s game,” said Woodward. “Our goal is to win the SOC, we prepare our guys for this, and so far in practice, this has been one of the best weeks of preparation and being healthy that we’ve had this year. That’s good to see.”
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