Better Burg gets 2nd shot


Pirates face Fighting Tigers in Region 19 semi

By Paul Boggs - pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com



Wheelersburg senior Josh Clark (4) caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Jones during the Pirates’ 24-20 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal football playoff win at Ridgewood.

Wheelersburg senior Josh Clark (4) caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Jones during the Pirates’ 24-20 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal football playoff win at Ridgewood.


Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com

Wheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) carries the ball and finds running room during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 opening-round football playoff game against West at Wheelersburg’s Ed Miller Stadium.


Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com

PORTSMOUTH — Remember that one-sided season opener between Wheelerburg and Ironton?

Yeah, didn’t think so either — and pretty much neither do Wheelersburg’s Rob Woodward or Ironton’s Trevon Pendleton.

In fact, mid-to-late August seems like many moons ago.

“When that game has been this far apart like this, we are a completely different-style football team than we were week one. And they are too. They’ve grown a lot as a team, and we’ve grown a lot as a team. It’s not that quick one or two-week turnaround and rematch-type game. To me, it’s a whole new season. It isn’t really as much of a rematch as it is a whole new game in a whole new season,” said the fourth-year head coach Pendleton, in an interview on Tuesday.

“I can’t speak for them (Fighting Tigers), but I can say this. We’re a completely improved team. I don’t think different is the right word. What we’ve been able to do is get our guys to buy into a growth mindset. You start out at a given point, and your goal is always to be better than you were when you started. Our kids have bought into that, they’ve worked so hard this year and have embraced the challenges we have laid before them,” said Woodward, the Pirates’ 14-year head coach, in an interview on Tuesday. “Our kids have continued to improve and get better each and every week. We’re playing better football now than we have in the first few weeks. We’ve had to move some guys around and they’ve embraced those changes and movements, recognizing that the ultimate goal is to put each and every one of them in the best situation to be successful and help one another be the best team that we can be.”

Indeed, this is a much better and now 9-3 Wheelersburg bunch that lost at 11-1 Ironton in the opener —by a scary 40-6 score, in which the Fighting Tigers put the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s running-clock rule on the Pirates for the game’s final three minutes and 11 seconds.

The Fighting Tigers took total advantage of four Pirate second-quarter turnovers, scoring four second-stanza touchdowns off those —part of all 40 points coming consecutive.

But that was truly then, and this is now — and it’s an entirely different matchup between the two tradition-rich and proud programs.

And, just to raise the stakes and sweeten the pot, it’s a Division V Region 19 semifinal —set for Saturday night inside Portsmouth’s palace-like Trojan Coliseum.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., as this marks the second regional semifinal between the two to take place at Portsmouth High School—where it was in 2014.

The Fighting Tigers, on a two-game win streak over the Pirates and with the 2020 contest at Wheelersburg getting canceled because of the coronavirus situation, take a 19-13 advantage in the all-time series —but Wheelersburg won the last two playoff meetings against Ironton, in 2014 at Portsmouth and in 2015 in Ed Miller Stadium.

Wheelersburg, up until two years ago when the Fighting Tigers pulled away for a 30-6 runaway win, won every regular-season meeting against Ironton from 2013 thru 2018 —and tacked two state playoff wins on in back-to-back years by identical 38-7 scores (2014 regional semifinals and 2015 regional quarterfinals).

This will be the fourth all-time playoff clash between the two titans, as Ironton won the first postseason matchup in 1995.

But again, Saturday night’s main event stands strictly on its own —and takes on an entirely new look from the season opener.

For starters, these Pirates are healthier, happier and brimming with confidence —on a seven-game winning streak thanks to snapping a two-game skid against Ridgewood.

Wheelersburg traveled to Coshocton County a week ago —and avenged last season’s 13-10 defensive-oriented defeat with a 24-20 victory, in which it erased a 20-10 deficit with 17 minutes remaining.

Incidentally, the winning streak started with the most noticeable change —junior Eli Jones returning from a thumb injury, and taking over as the Pirates’ starting quarterback.

Jones didn’t play of course against Ironton, and has been a regular running offensive weapon — while gradually improving his passing performances.

Last week, he completed 10-of-13 for 145 yards —including two touchdown passes of at least 40 yards to Josh Clark.

“Eli has definitely come on as a vital part of this team offensively, and what he is able to do. Our offense has always been about being able to get the ball out to playmakers, and we’ve always wanted our quarterback to be a playmaker himself,” said Woodward. “He has come in and added a big spark with his feet and his speed. He has explosiveness back there, he is the second or third-fastest guy on our team, and that speed has been something we definite look to utilize. He has also gotten so much better at recognizing where people are and how and where we can get the ball to them.”

Pendleton said the Pirates “found their identity” in Jones —and with Ethan Glover as the featured workhorse back in a sizable stable.

“They want to run the ball with a lot of counter, a lot of power, some gap-scheme stuff with either the quarterback or the running back. Then they like to take deep shots down the field. They are not a team that really dinks and dunks the ball underneath. They’ve found their strengths and their identity this year,” he said. “On the other side of the ball, we have to execute and prepare for a good football team. They are going to break some tendencies and do the things that allow them to be successful, so we have to counter that.”

While Jones took over under center, Carson Williams —who carried eight times against the Fighting Tigers in the opener —went to tight end, and provides strength and depth up front.

The Pirates’ offensive front and defensive looks have also undergone changes —and all for the better.

Wheelersburg — to be blunt — was young, inexperienced, banged up and even beset by coronavirus quarantines for that first meeting.

“We didn’t make a big deal out of anything at that time, but Eli was out injured, we had a number of guys in protocol situations, and we were still trying to figure out a lot of things at that time. Since then, we’ve moved different people around, and we’ve got new faces in there at offensive line, at quarterback, at tight end, at wide receiver, and defensively,” said Woodward.

Speaking of defense, while Jones didn’t face the Fighting Tigers —the remainder of the Pirates did, and without much success.

The Pirates’ primary pickups were a pair of 70-yard pass completions including one for their only score, as they totaled 205 yards —with only 60 rushing on 38 carries.

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 (25 points) in their only loss this fall.

This season, the Fighting Tigers have allowed just 89 points in 12 games.

Ironton’s anchors are end Ashton Duncan (6-2, 245, sr.), tackle Nate Cochran (6-3, 300, sr.), and linebacker Angelo Washington (6-1, 225, sr).

In fact, Duncan — before the season — committed to Miami (Ohio) University, while Washington, just this past week, announced his verbal commitment to the University of Kentucky.

Both are Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

“These playoff games are won with who controls the line of scrimmage, so that is a big focus for us,” said Pendleton. “Controlling that line of scrimmage isn’t just in the run game. It allows you to get pressure on the quarterback, go play-action pass, and feel really good about your protection and one-on-one matchups. All football games are very simple, and they all start on the defensive and offensive lines. You definitely have to win those battles before you can expect to win any others.”

As for the Pirates, to help control the line of scrimmage is simple — per Woodward.

Mistakes MUST be eliminated.

“We have to limit mistakes. We were mistake-filled in that game, and they were extremely costly. Not to take anything away from them, because they have big guys that come off the ball really hard and are always looking to really wreak havoc,” said the coach. “We’ve got to be able to use that against them, and be able to stop it at times. We have to find ways to gain the yards needed, move the chains, and patiently work the ball best we can down the field, and make sure we end drives with scoring.”

And, perhaps points might be harder to come by for both clubs —as Ironton, thanks to Tayden Carpenter’s season-ending injury, is going with either freshman Braden Schreck at quarterback, or Jon Wylie, who performed well against Wheelersburg in the opener, but did not play in last week’s 17-6 quarterfinal win over Portsmouth.

Schreck started for the first time in Ironton’s opening-round win over Wellston, while Wylie has been dealing with a shoulder injury since the regular-season finale.

If Wylie can’t play, Schreck starts —with former Wheelersburg starting quarterback and current Ironton wideout Aaron Masters as the backup.

Regardless of Ironton’s under-center starter, Woodward said his Pirates “must continue to play really good defense” —and likely expect a heavy dose of running back Jaquez Keyes.

Keyes —a 6-1, 210-pound junior —carried 16 times against the Trojans last week.

“Our defense has played extremely well,” said Woodward. “Whoever lines up and plays for them, we have to make sure we’re flying around to the football, aligning properly and tackling soundly. Our defense has done a great job of forcing 18 turnovers this year. We’re going to continue to fly and get 11 hats to the football as fast and as quick as we can, and see what happens.”

And, what happens this cold November night is a whole new ballgame —both ways —from what took place amid the August heat.

The winner will advance to the Region 19 championship tilt —to face the winner of sixth-seeded Columbus Academy and second-seeded Harvest Prep.

“I’m really excited about this one and for our kids,” said Pendleton. “Not many times do you get two really good teams with this much history and this much on the line playing in the playoffs and right in our back yard.”

“We’re blessed for this opportunity and our kids have earned this chance to go up against an opponent that we played in the regular season. But we’re playing our best football right now unlike then, and we look to do that again for another week,” said Woodward. “We want to show everybody how hard we’ve worked and how much we’ve improved.”

Wheelersburg senior Josh Clark (4) caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Jones during the Pirates’ 24-20 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal football playoff win at Ridgewood.
https://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2021/11/web1_Burg-Ironton-PRE-Clark.jpgWheelersburg senior Josh Clark (4) caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Jones during the Pirates’ 24-20 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal football playoff win at Ridgewood. Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com

Wheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) carries the ball and finds running room during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 opening-round football playoff game against West at Wheelersburg’s Ed Miller Stadium.
https://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2021/11/web1_Burg-Ironton-PRE-Jones-.jpgWheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) carries the ball and finds running room during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 opening-round football playoff game against West at Wheelersburg’s Ed Miller Stadium. Courtesy of Terry Stevenson of www.burgsports.com
Pirates face Fighting Tigers in Region 19 semi

By Paul Boggs

pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved