PORTSMOUTH — Perhaps Portsmouth head coach Bruce Kalb said it best —if you’re a Trojan player, alumnus or football fan.
“If you can’t get up for this game coming up, then you have no business playing football for Portsmouth High School. This game is why we play. And it’s not a hatred, it’s a respect,” said Kalb, in an interview in regards to this week’s regular-season finale opponent.
That, of course, is none other than the Ironton Fighting Tigers —the tradition-rich and proud program that has played Portsmouth 128 times since 1902.
However, any rivalry —especially this Ohio River rivalry — is only spiced up with plenty at stake, and that is exactly the case for Friday night’s 129th all-time meeting.
Should the Trojans be triumphant, they will primetime tie the all-time series at an even 61-61-7, capture a share of their first-ever Ohio Valley Conference championship, and secure themselves into a Division V Region 19 first-round home playoff game.
Yes, it’s a massive task —but one which the Trojans indeed welcome, as 7-2 Portsmouth (4-1 OVC) plays 8-1 Ironton (6-0 OVC), in what should be nothing short of an all-time epic.
And, there’s been a lot of those.
It’s actually believed to be the third longest-running series in the state —with Troy and Piqua and Massillon Washington and Canton McKinley being the oldest pair.
Portsmouth last won three years ago in Kalb’s first season as head coach, as the Trojans — trailing 21-0 at halftime — truly reversed course, and erupted for five unanswered second-half touchdowns en route to that memorable 35-28 final.
“It’s one of the oldest rivalries in high school football in the state of Ohio, and it’s always been a battle no matter what the scores are or what the records are. Throw all that out the window. There’s a lot of pride on the line,” said Kalb. “We know both Portsmouth and Ironton will get after it for 48 minutes. We just hope to come out and execute and perform up to our abilities. But these seniors saw as freshmen what it means to never give up.”
Kickoff on Friday night, inside historic Tanks Memorial Stadium in Ironton, is set for 7 p.m.
The Fighting Tigers try for their third consecutive outright OVC championship, and perhaps —maybe most likely —lock themselves into Region 19’s top seed.
The Fighting Tigers (20.2222 computer points average), with the official Ohio High School Athletic Association computer points second-to-last release on Tuesday, trail only undefeated Piketon (20.7955) in Region 19 —but will surely jump the Redstreaks given a victory over the Trojans.
Speaking of which, they are clinging to the eighth-place spot in the region — at a 12.4626 computer points average.
With the expansion of the OHSAA state playoffs to 16 teams per region this year, and no bye weeks with that, the top eight squads secure first-round home games.
So yeah, the Trojans would like to play their first-ever playoff game inside sparkling Trojan Coliseum, which has hosted Portsmouth football since 2009.
“Lot of computer points on the board to get,” said Kalb.
Of course, that goes without saying.
In fact, the Trojans are a mere two two-point conversions away from being undefeated —as host Waverly won 35-34 on a two-point run with 45 seconds left, while the Trojans’ two-point pass on a mud-mired Jim Mayo Memorial Stadium at Fairland failed in the final minute for a 15-14 loss.
Waverly is 7-1 with a 21-14 loss at Wheelersburg, while the Dragons’ only setback is that 20-14 overtime heartbreaker at Ironton.
Kalb can see another late fourth-quarter, even overtime, affair occurring on Friday night.
“Our schedule has done a good job preparing us for this game and what’s at stake. We’ve played the games we need to play to get us ready. Both teams have. Fairland is a common opponent that we both battled with. Waverly, we picked up and battled at earlier on,” said the coach. “We know it’s a game that’s probably going to come down to the fourth quarter, and who is making the least amount of mistakes and can execute their gameplan to perfection or near-perfection.”
Speaking of close to perfect, how about the Fighting Tigers’ defense?
Ironton is also the two-time defending Division V state runners-up, spearheaded by a defensive unit which has allowed only 68 points all season.
In fact, the Fighting Tigers’ defense has surrendered more than three touchdowns in one game just twice in three years —last season’s state championship tilt against Kirtland, and against Division I powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller in their only loss this fall.
Ironton, after turning Wheelersburg over four times in the second quarter en route to that 40-6 season-opening win, indeed survived serious scares against Jackson (13-10) and Fairland (20-14 in overtime) —both of which were dramatic walkoff wins.
The defensive slugfest victory over Jackson, of course, featured Ty Perkins taking a lateral on an Ironmen kickoff all the way for the touchdown —with no time on the clock.
Since the 25-7 home loss to Moeller, the Tigers have simply chewed up their OVC competition —with the OHSAA’s running-clock rule being enforced in all six games.
The OVC slate — aside from the Fairland duel — also marked the return of two-year quarterback Tayden Carpenter from injury, as he was injured early in the Wheelersburg win with Jon Wylie taking over.
In 11 quarters, Carpenter has completed all (43) but 10 of his 53 pass attempts for 901 yards —with 13 touchdowns against only one interception.
“We’re fully aware of what Ironton is capable of. But at the same time, what we’ve been able to do both offensively and defensively this year, I think we’re in for a battle this week,” said Kalb.
What the PHS defense has done this season is simply, and dramatically, improve —allowing only four rushing touchdowns all year, and in the run-oriented OVC (three by Coal Grove, one by Fairland).
Offensively, the Trojans have wasted very few possessions this season, scoring 329 total points — and at least two offensive touchdowns in each game.
Portsmouth senior quarterback Drew Roe, after an over 2,500-yard and 29-touchdown season in 2020, has only expanded upon those numbers this year —completing 151 of his 224 attempts in nine games, for 1,925 yards and 25 touchdowns against only four interceptions.
He has also rushed 86 times for 408 yards, with 11 touchdowns.
Roe has started since his sophomore season — when Portsmouth last went 8-2, and qualified for the state playoffs.
While these Trojans are almost assured of a postseason spot, their immediate wish list includes a home bout, an OVC championship share, and another victory over Ironton.
And, in another Ohio River epic.
“I’m excited, I know the coaching staff is excited, and the kids are excited. These seniors have had the mantle passed on to them, and they are cut out for doing what they need to do to win and get to 8-2. We definitely understand the stakes of this game, but all that aside, it’s Portsmouth and Ironton,” said Kalb. “As someone who has played and coached and been a spectator in this rivalry, it’s one of the most exciting games of the year. And I have no doubt this year will not disappoint.”
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