PORTSMOUTH — It’s no deep or dark secret that the Portsmouth Trojans are projected as the favorite for Friday night’s Ohio Valley Conference opener at Rock Hill.
After all, they check most of the advantage boxes — athleticism, offensive explosiveness, speed and perhaps most importantly, three games and even two preseason scrimmages already in the books.
However, if anybody believes undefeated Portsmouth —playing for a perfect 4-0 start to the season —is taking the improving Redmen for granted, then think again.
That’s because Portsmouth knows that the Redmen, despite three games in and only one down for Rock Hill, make it a habit of shortening games —and thus potential long nights for any opposition.
“Anytime you start off 3-0, that’s monumental to get your program rolling, especially as we head into conference play and against what we feel is a very tough Rock Hill team,” said fourth-year PHS coach Bruce Kalb, in a Wednesday interview. “I don’t think these kids in this locker-room are taking Rock Hill lightly. I see the way we are preparing and the way we are trying to get better.”
The Trojans try to avoid the pitfall on Friday night at Rock Hill High School, as they meet the Redmen for the 10th time all time —and once again after the two teams did not play last year.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., as the matchup marks the second OVC affair for the 2021 football season —after two-time defending champion Ironton edged Fairland 20-14 in overtime in last week’s league opener.
The only other OVC tilt is Coal Grove at South Point, as the Chesapeake at Gallia Academy game got canceled due to the Panthers’ coronavirus situation.
Gallia Academy, which hosts Portsmouth next week, opted out of finding a new non-league opponent for this week —and instead the low-numbers and banged-up Blue Devils are resting and recovering with the Trojans coming calling next Friday.
That means Portsmouth not only needs to play, and defeat, Rock Hill —but also return from the Lawrence County hills rather relatively healthy.
The Redmen, running the old Ironton “T” formation fullhouse backfield offense under head coach Mark Lutz, are going to be a physically — and mentally — demanding opponent for the athletic Trojans.
It’s no secret also, according to Kalb, what Rock Hill has intentions of doing.
The Redmen, with that unique yet retro run-oriented offense, will attempt to play keep-away from the Trojans —holding onto the football and draining the clock so that the dynamic Drew Roe stays on the sidelines.
The Redmen, unfortunately for them, had their first two games get canceled because of their coronavirus situation —one of them being a road show at Minford.
As part of that two-week shutdown, the Redmen didn’t practice for 10 days either.
Last week, Rock Hill started its season —scoring 23 second-half points with the final 15 over the final 5:18, and blanking host Oak Hill 23-0.
“I know they have only played one game, but you know what you are going to get with (RHHS head coach) Mark Lutz and the boys. That’s big, strong and physical linemen, running backs that hit the holes and run hard, and they are going to play three yards and a cloud of dust. They will try to keep your defense on the field and your offense off,” said Kalb.
Yes, it’s that simple for the Trojans —as Owen Hankins and Skyler Kidd carried 17 times apiece last week, totaling 76 and 72 yards respectively.
Rock Hill had just four pass attempts compared to 38 rushes, although its second score came courtesy of a 27-yard interception return.
Kalb said it is imperative for the senior standout quarterback Roe, who burned Deer Park last Friday for all eight Trojan touchdowns and 530 total yards, to be on the field with the ball in his hands.
That means the Trojan defense can’t be out there for lengthy Rock Hill possessions.
“That’s something we’ve tried to prepare for both mentally and physically headed into this game. We need to get our defense off the field and we need to make sure we execute when we do have the ball. We feel we have an advantage athletically offensively, but at the same time, you can’t score if you don’t have the ball. They make a living off of ball-control offense. With the nature of their offense, as long as they keep it within one score by the fourth quarter, they have a fighting chance,” said the coach. “We need to get as many turnovers and/or change of possessions as we can, and of course capitalize when we do have the ball and not waste those drives.”
The Trojans have wasted very few possessions this season, scoring 125 total points and at least three offensive touchdowns — part of five overall — in each game.
Last week, with the running and passing threat Roe leading the way, they erupted for eight offensive trips to paydirt.
“He (Roe) reminds you of Johnny Manziel. He can run around and buy time and then make a play,” Lutz told The Ironton Tribune. “He’s fast and strong, he has a strong arm and he is very accurate. That’s hard enough to defend and then you throw in his ability to scramble and run the ball, and our defense has its work cut out for it.”
But again, it’s all dependent upon Roe even having the football.
Kalb said the Redmen’s offense is similar to other OVC squads, such as Coal Grove and even Chesapeake —which often operate with two tight ends and a fullback.
Lutz, of course, coached for many years under legendary and longtime Ironton head coach Bob Lutz.
“Still, given his background and history, no one knows how to run and execute that offense like Mark Lutz does,” said Kalb.
These Trojans and Redmen were freshmen and sophomores the last time these two played —in September two years ago when Portsmouth prevailed at Rock Hill, 40-28.
Because of the OVC’s decision to flip last season’s schedule, on the heels of the Ohio High School Athletic Association deciding to play only six regular-season games before the state playoffs given the coronavirus threat, the two clubs did not meet.
Portsmouth played Ironton in its opener, and Rock Hill was the odd “Redman” out.
“They were the odd one out for us in conference play. We can only look back to two years ago. They haven’t seen an offense like ours and conversely, we haven’t seen an offense like theirs,” said Kalb. “By not playing them last year, we’ve noticed some things different that they have evolved into. The preparation has been a little bit more challenging than normal in that regard. When you play a team in a league year-in and year-out, you get used to them and see the direction they are going. Last year not playing them adds a wrinkle to this year’s game.”
As for the series history, the Trojans own a decisive 8-1 advantage —with Rock Hill winning six years ago 38-14, which was Portsmouth’s first season in the OVC.
Before then, the first four meetings in 1979, 1998, 2000 and 2001 resulted in a combined score of 198-6 in favor of the Trojans — with Rock Hill scoring those six points in 2001 (48-6).
The last four PHS triumphs— 33-32 in 2016, 31-28 in 2017, 28-14 in 2018 and 40-28 in 2019 —have all been much more competitive.
Kalb did say having played three full games already should be beneficial for his club.
“Our kids have had to play four quarters all three games,” he said. “Our starters have played three full games, four quarters plus two scrimmages, so hopefully that comes out to our advantage when it comes to the conditioning and just the physicality of four quarters of football.”
And, speaking of four, it’s no deep or dark secret the Trojans —trying to improve each week —want to be 4-0.
“We started 4-0 two years ago, and to do that again would be huge. But 4-0 to us is about taking what we did last week, then getting better from it. It doesn’t matter if we scored 56 points last week, we have to get better. We have yet to allow a rushing touchdown, but we still have to get better,” said Kalb. “These seniors don’t want to rest on those laurels. They want to accomplish much more, and just keep getting better each week.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved