McDERMOTT — In already a unique year for football, why not have a unique matchup —in more ways than one —for the opening round of the state playoffs.
On Saturday night, that’s what we’ll get in Division V Region 19 —as the Portsmouth Trojans travel a mere 15 minutes to Roy Rogers country, and face the Northwest Mohawks in the two programs’ first-ever meeting.
Despite being in the same division and region for the majority of their history, and obviously in same Scioto County, Portsmouth and Northwest have never squared off on the gridiron —until now.
And, what a time for it, as these atypical Ohio High School Athletic Association playoffs kick off with weekend games — all the way thru Nov. 21.
For 22nd-seeded and 1-5 Portsmouth and 11th-seeded and 5-1 Northwest, it’s a definite contrast in styles, streaks and competition levels to date —as kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Northwest High School’s Roy Rogers Field.
While Portsmouth is a veteran playoff qualifier including the past two seasons, the Mohawks make their first appearance —although the circumstances are much different than in any other year.
The OHSAA Board of Directors, in response to the coronavirus threat, decided in early August to reduce the regular season to a minimum of six games —with ALL programs provided the opportunity to compete in the playoffs, should they so choose.
Those playoffs would then begin this weekend, as the regional matchups were determined by seeding — which was the result of the coaches voting.
Still, despite a regular season unlike any other, both teams are ecstatic about competing in the postseason — and still competing period.
We’re excited about the matchup. People can say everyone made the playoffs this year, but it doesn’t cheapen the fact that it’s still win or go home. We’re still playing for everything and you’re playing matchups that you normally wouldn’t play. Our kids are definitely excited,” said Portsmouth coach Bruce Kalb.
“We’ve gotten all kinds of messages and well-wishes and support. The community is so excited. It’s the first time and a lot of people probably don’t know how to handle it just yet, but hopefully we can put on a good show for them Saturday night,” said Northwest coach Bill Crabtree. “It’s also exciting to have the opportunity to play against a team with the history that Portsmouth has. People are saying they are in a down year, but they’ve had just an incredible schedule. I couldn’t imagine facing their schedule week-in and week-out.”
The Mohawks enter on a five-game winning streak, and captured their first-ever outright Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship last week.
They rallied past Symmes Valley for a 10-8 victory in the final minute-and-a-half, as Dakota Secrest — with a second chance — kicked a 24-yard field goal, giving Northwest the dramatic win.
Secrest’s second try was the result of an inadvertent whistle on his first, as the Vikings actually blocked that first attempt.
But the sophomore Secrest made good on his extra opportunity, capping a nearly 70-yard scoring drive.
“It was a great night and a great team win, a great community win. The kids had a goal, and to see them work so hard and then be able to get that second opportunity and make the most of it was just great. Just so many emotions that night going into it and so many highs and lows throughout the game,” said Crabtree. “We came together at the end and kept our composure for that scoring drive to finish it.”
As part of their winning streak, the Mohawks have overcome adversity —including key absences, as freshman playmaker Connor Lintz did not play last week following an emergency appendectomy.
Nathan Rivers, a two-way impact player at running back and linebacker, left the team the week of their critical game against Eastern.
Crabtree said the Mohawks’ depth from their nearly 70-man roster has made a significant difference.
“We’ve had guys going down left and right to injuries and sickness, but other people have stepped up and made plays for us. We talked all year about our depth,” he said. “I didn’t realize that our depth would be tested as much as it has recently, but to know we still have guys hungry and ready for their opportunity when the time comes is exciting. We have some younger guys jumping right in and making huge plays for us and we’re not missing a beat.”
Those Mohawks must make plays against the high-octane Trojans, which —despite a five-game losing streak — are entering with some much-needed momentum.
As strange as that sounds, Portsmouth —playing in the challenging Ohio Valley Conference which features three teams with playoff byes —put up 38 and a whopping 63 points against Chesapeake and Coal Grove respectively, and only allowed 18 against Division IV Gallia Academy.
The Trojans took the 5-1 Blue Devils to overtime tied at 12-12, and defensively —dramatically —did an about-face from surrendering 49 points at Chesapeake and a stunning 66 points and almost 500 rushing yards at Coal Grove.
The key, Kalb commented, was physicality.
“We decided to make it a point in practice to make it more physical. Have more of an edge and emphasize that a lot. After the Coal Grove game, we told the kids that this was unacceptable. This isn’t the style of football we play here at Portsmouth High School. For years, people knew if they had to play Portsmouth, they were going to have to play a physical team. I said it’s time for us to adapt that mantra that we’ve held here for so long,” said the coach. “If teams are going to beat us, they are going to suffer first. While certainly not pleased with the result of taking a loss to Gallia, we’re definitely pleased with that kind of momentum and attitude on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Trojans will need to be physical against the run-heavy three-back Mohawks, which operate from their traditional two tight-end stacked-I attack — in which all 11 players are aligned within five yards of one another.
Brayden Campbell (5-9, 175, jr.) carries the load at tailback, but Wyatt Brackman (6-0, 250, soph.) boasts big measurables — and rushing statistics — at fullback.
Kalb said his studying of Northwest from film — and the Mohawks’ main two offensive formations — reminds him of both Chesapeake and Coal Grove.
“We basically said this is what we’re doing to stop them. We shared with the kids the gameplan and how we’re going to execute it. Now it comes down to can you execute and will you execute? Their offense is three yards and a cloud of dust,” he said. “They have three guys that can carry the ball and run the ball hard, so we have to swarm to the ball, make sure we wrap them up and bring them to the ground. Part of their defensive strategy is just to play keep-away. We need to make sure we get some big stops and some takeaways and let our offense do what it does.”
What that Trojan spread-the-field offense does, engineered by junior quarterback Drew Roe (5-8, 145), is utilize its speed and athleticism to score points.
“We have to capitalize when we have the ball, make sure we get our playmakers the ball in space and let them make plays, and make sure they (Mohawks) defend the entire field,” said Kalb.
Crabtree is completely aware of what the Mohawks are up against on defense —and the step-up in competition level they are facing.
Until now, all six of Northwest’s opponents were either Division VI (Valley and Symmes Valley) or Division VII (Notre Dame, Eastern, East and Green) squads —with much fewer numbers.
Eastern, and its spread-the-field philosophy, is the closest resemblance to the Trojans whom the Mohawks have already played.
“Against Eastern, we had two or three guys we had to focus on. Portsmouth has guys everywhere you have to focus on. Their average guys are better than most teams’ best guys around this area. They are dangerous if they have the ball in their hands because they are capable of scoring on every play,” said Crabtree. “We’re going to face more athleticism and speed than we’ve seen all year for sure. Roe’s athleticism at quarterback is unreal and they have a lot of good weapons out there making plays. They have athletes all over the field and spread that ball around. It’s going to be a challenge. Our defense has been great all season, but I don’t know if we’ve been tested like this.”
Crabtree continued in that swarming to the ball and gang-tackling the Trojans are two of the utmost priorities.
“They are probably faster than us, but we have some decent team speed ourselves that we’re definitely going to have to utilize” he said. “Making plays in space and getting everybody, all 11 guys, to the football on every play is going to be huge.”
But likely the Mohawks’ best defense is their ball control, clock-consuming, drive-crafting, power-based offense.
In other words, expect Northwest to play a game of keep-away —without turning the ball over of course.
“We have to keep the ball in our hands and the chains moving. Our goal is to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. We want to line up and establish our power running game. We have to stay ahead of the chains and take care of the football,” said Crabtree. “We put the ball on the ground a lot last week. If that happens this week, it’s going to be a long night.”
And that the Mohawks definitely don’t want or need, as their first playoff appearance — even in an unusual season — is a long-time coming.
“We’ve talked all year about one goal at a time. The Eastern game, at the time, that was a conference championship game. Then we set our sights on Symmes Valley, and an outright SOC I championship was a goal for sure. And our main goal for this year was to make the playoffs. The coronavirus situation obviously helped us with that, but the playoffs are a great achievement for these kids,” said Crabtree. “Our next goal is to win in a playoff game. You meet one goal, you build on the next.”
For the Trojans, they are about advancing as well.
“We’ve been able to play six weeks going on seven now, and we’d love nothing more than to be able to play next week,” said Kalb.
Bowling not kicking
While Secrest kicks for Northwest, Portsmouth will be —for the second consecutive week —without standout placekicker Joel Bowling.
Bowling missed the Gallia Academy game, and is again out on Saturday night, because of mandatory quarantine associated with a coronavirus contact.
The Trojans’ two two-point conversion tries against the Blue Devils both failed —as both were scoring situations in which ordinarily Bowling would kick the extra point.
Gallia Academy won 18-12 in overtime, in part.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved