IRONTON — For the Ironton Fighting Tigers, only two trips northward along U.S. Route 23 towards the greater Columbus area separate them from a possible third state football championship.
However, to capture a second consecutive Division V state championship game appearance, the Fighting Tigers —and undoubtedly top Tiger Reid Carrico —will have to tackle a future Tiger.
As in Cincinnati Roger Bacon’s Cory Kiner.
Indeed, two of the top teams —and two of the top players — in the entire state do battle in a state semifinal on Saturday night, as Carrico and the Fighting Tigers tangle with Kiner and the Spartans inside London High School’s Bowlus Field.
Kickoff for this contest of two 10-0 squads is set for 7 p.m., as Ironton is making its 13th all-time state semifinal appearance — part of 36 all-time postseason campaigns.
It is actually the third meeting between these two programs —with Ironton amassing the first two wins, but both were clear back in 1940 (14-6) and 1941 (15-0) at Ironton’s Tanks Memorial Stadium.
And, of course, in the 60 seasons since, much has changed.
Although, in an era where high-octane spread offenses are the norm, Saturday night’s encounter is seen as a battle of two run-oriented and old-school offenses — with a pair of Division I recruits.
While Carrico —officially announced on Saturday as the 2020 Southeast District Division V Defensive AND Offensive Player of the Year —is headed to Ohio State as arguably the top-recruited linebacker in the entire country, his offensive counterpart Kiner is a verbal commitment to LSU.
However, as Southeast District Division V Coach of the Year Trevon Pendleton said in an interview on Wednesday, it’s about the Fighting Tigers’ team —and as good as Carrico is, it is much more than one individual.
Still, the Fighting Tigers’ focus on defense —for a unit that has pitched three shutouts, not allowed any more than 14 points any one game, and grounded the Ridgewood Generals to just a late second-stanza touchdown in last week’s Region 19 championship rematch —is on Kiner.
The current RBHS Spartan and future LSU Tiger Kiner is a 5-foot-10 and 205-pound featured back, having rushed for at least 100 yards in seven games —with a total of 1,762 yards on 146 carries for a dozen yards per carry average.
He has 29 rushing touchdowns, one receiving and one on a kickoff return —all while the Spartans put up big early leads and Kiner would sit out for the remainder of the games.
But while Kiner is in there, and don’t at all expect him to exit early on Saturday night, the Fighting Tigers’ tackling of him — and being physical plus making the Spartans one-dimensional — is paramount.
“It’s doing what we do, and not getting away from what we do. We hang our hat here on being physical on both sides of the ball and making it a war for four quarters and turning up the heat on people,” said Pendleton. “We have to maintain our identity, we have to be physical, and when the opportunity comes we have to get Kiner on the ground. Our ultimate goal is to make teams one-dimensional, but we pride ourselves on being able to stop the run.”
As a team and on 300 attempts, the Spartans are just 21 yards shy of 2,800 rushing —averaging 9.3 yards per carry along with 40 touchdowns.
They have scored at least 31 points in all 10 games, having played —with the exception of 2-6 North College Hill —nine teams which won at least four games in this coronavirus-shortened season.
The Region 20 champions and fellow top-seeded Spartans have scored 31 points in each of the last two tilts, and actually escaped an upset bid by Versailles (31-28) in the regional semifinals.
“They (Spartans) are a very good football team, and they’ve been able to take care of business all year in that area (southwest Ohio), but the Kiner kid immediately jumps out at you. He is a very good running back,” said Pendleton. “He is very balanced, a very good player that reminds me a lot of (former standout) Talyn Parker from Portsmouth. Any time he touches the ball, he has the ability to take it to the house. We have to stop him before he gets started. We have to make him hesitate his feet, we have to apply immense amount of pressure on him.”
But Kiner isn’t alone for the Spartans, as Pendleton compared their philosophy to that of Wheelersburg.
Danny Hudepohl has 487 yards and three touchdowns on 49 carries for a 10-yards-per-carry average, while catching 10 passes for 195 yards from junior quarterback Logan Huber.
Huber has completed 69 of 101 passes for 1,064 yards, has not thrown an interception all season, and has fired 13 touchdowns.
At least three receivers have at least 13 receptions for 208 yards.
“They run the ball and they do it a lot out of spread sets, and their offense flows through him (Kiner), but they have a very capable quarterback and a few receivers who can stretch the field,” said Pendleton. “They have good athletes, are scrappy players, and they are well-coached.”
Roger Bacon will account for where Carrico is at all times on defense, as he has 48 tackles with three sacks and a team-high 14 tackles for loss.
But the Spartans should also do the same on offense, as Carrico carries the ball, catches the ball, and —as proven last week for Trevor Carter in the Ridgewood win —blocks especially well.
Like Kiner, when the Fighting Tigers roll out to a large lead, Carrico comes out of the game.
He has 1,276 rushing yards on 118 carries for an 11-yard average —with 21 rushing touchdowns.
In keeping Kiner off the field, expect Ironton —out of a stacked “I” or even its traditional “T” formation — to employ a ball control, clock-consuming, drive-crafting offensive attack.
Carter (16) and Carrico (13) carried the most for the Fighting Tigers against Ridgewood, as all of Carter’s carries were in the second half.
“One of our keys to winning that we discuss every week is winning time of possession. We always talk about winning ‘the threes’. We have to win third down, the third quarter and the third phase of the game which is special teams. All three are tied into time of possession,” said Pendleton. “If we are able to do that, we really like our chances. It allows us to wear on people.”
But, they will surely need to play a better first half than they did against the Generals —in which they were tied 7-7 at halftime.
Ironton at least has significant experience on its side —as its large and standout senior class started several positions in last season’s state semifinal and championship game.
Roger Bacon went 10-2 last season, but played in Division IV — and lost in the regional semifinal round.
“Anytime that you are in a familiar situation and facing similar adversity, you are able to draw back on that experience. You are able to learn from it and gain from it. It’s going to help you grow as a player. We’ve had a lot of guys already play in these types of situations,” said Pendleton. “They are going to draw from that and take care of business this week again I believe.”
That’s the goal at least, as Ironton has made it a mission to return to the Division V state title bout —and this season finish the job.
The last step, before the last step, takes place in London on Saturday night.
“When you are practicing and playing this deep in the season, under the lights every night, it’s a pretty cool and unique atmosphere and environment,” said Pendleton. “We’re excited and ready to go at it again.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved