WHEELERSBURG — If you play football games on paper, if you believe certain social media, and if you scroll through Internet message boards, then this season’s opener involving Ironton and Wheelersburg should be one-sided.
According to some, Ironton is a heavy favorite, the host Pirates are overwhelming underdogs, and —for the second consecutive season —the Ohio High School’s Athletic Association’s running-clock rule may take effect.
But, as evidenced by Wheelersburg’s upstaging of Ironton in the Division V Region 19 semifinals, then all of the aforementioned hullabaloo should indeed be taken with a grain of salt.
That’s correct, for football games are in fact played on the field and between the yard lines —including the 34th all-time between Ironton and Wheelersburg on Friday night.
The Pirates play for a two-game win streak over the Fighting Tigers, and Ironton aims for a three-game regular-season win streak over Wheelersburg — as kickoff is set for 7 p.m. inside what is anticipated to be an overflow Ed Miller Stadium.
Speaking of which, it is Ironton’s first trip to Wheelersburg in four years —as the scheduled season opener there two years back was canceled because of the coronavirus threat.
In the pair of regular-season meetings since then, both at Ironton’s historic Tanks Memorial Stadium, the Fighting Tigers took the two by counts of 30-6 and 40-6 —the second matchup spearheaded by four Pirate second-quarter turnovers, and four subsequent Fighting Tiger touchdowns.
However, in the playoff return bout, it was five Fighting Tiger turnovers turning the tide in the Pirates’ favor —as Wheelersburg erased a 14-3 first-quarter deficit, scoring twice in the final three periods, including the game-winning touchdown in the final minute and 57 seconds.
That incredible Wheelersburg win narrowed the Pirates’ all-time series deficit to 19-14 —as Wheelersburg went on an astounding eight-game win streak against Ironton prior to three years ago.
Wheelersburg, up until three years back when the Fighting Tigers pulled away for that 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).
Although, none of this season’s seniors on either side impacted that matchup as freshmen, as the Pirates are coached by 15-year mentor Rob Woodward —with Trevon Pendleton beginning his fifth season heading up the Fighting Tigers.
“Ironton is always a great challenge for us,” said Woodward. “But you always have your greatest understanding about your team from week one to week two.”
So why you ask all the lopsided predictions for Friday night?
At least per subjective and even objective observers?
The Fighting Tigers, as a dozen players captured all-Southeast District Division V honors last season, simply reloaded in the talented skilled positions department — with three of them already verbally committing to playing collegiately for Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Running backs Jaquez Keyes and Trevor Carter committed to Wisconsin and Cincinnati respectively, as wide receiver Ty Perkins will join Carter at Cincinnati next season.
Tayden Carpenter comes back healthy as the starting quarterback, while Landon Wilson will be the prototypical all-purpose performer —from carrying the ball, to catching passes, to returning kickoffs and punts.
Look for Carter and Keyes carrying the ball early and often, but where Wheelersburg needs to be stout is in the trenches —gaining defensive penetration against Ironton’s inexperienced starters along its offensive line.
The Pirates’ run-oriented offense, and experience up front with four returning starters, may be their best defense to keep the Fighting Tigers off the field—but Burg struggled mightily in moving the football against Ironton, including only 130 yards of total offense in the playoff game.
The Pirates, plagued by turnovers and subsequent short fields for Ironton in the initial matchup, rushed 38 times for just 60 yards —although Ironton did have not one but two all-Southeast District Division V Defensive Players of the Year, linebacker Angelo Washington and lineman Nate Cochran.
Both have graduated, and Wheelersburg’s would-be advantage along the fronts needs to pay dividends in order for the Pirates to win.
Caleb Miller, a six-foot and two-inch tall and 260-pound senior, anchors the Pirates’ offensive front —and was an all-Southeast District Division V first-team lineman last season.
Wheelersburg will return its own offense-by-committee combinations —led by senior quarterback Eli Jones, senior running back Ethan Glover, senior running back Derrick Lattimore, senior wide receiver Eric Lattimore, junior running back Jake Darling and junior wideout Creed Warren.
Caleb Arthur, a 6-4 and 210-pound senior tight end, is back after missing all of last season following a serious knee injury —and offers elements of extra run-blocking or even pass-catching.
Look for, as per usual, turnovers and penalties to play critical roles —just as they did in both affairs among the two last year.
That said, games turn on a dime with too many mistakes and excellent field position —and ALWAYS play parts in upsets.
And, that’s why games are indeed played on the field —for the Pirates tangle with the Fighting Tigers in the annual season-opening grudge match.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved