PORTSMOUTH — All indications for Friday night is that the Ohio River weather will be, predictably, much cooler.
However, the Portsmouth Trojans have the Fairland Dragons on a preferably fast track, which plays to the Trojans’ strengths, which are undoubtedly their speed and athleticism.
But, the Dragons are known for those factors too — it’s just that they don’t have the friendly confines of sometimes muddy Jim Mayo Stadium, which they did last season.
In a football game that could quickly turn into a track meet, a far cry from last year’s 15-14 defensive slugfest in which the Dragons prevailed on a rain-soaked and slick natural grass surface, 5-2 Fairland comes calling to sparkling Trojan Coliseum — and faces 4-3 Portsmouth in a key Ohio Valley Conference clash.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., as the Trojans — 3-1 in the conference — try to stay within striking distance for the OVC championship chase.
Ironton and Gallia Academy, which are both undefeated at 7-0 and 4-0 in the league, are heavy favorites to win home games on Friday night —and face each other next week in Ironton.
Thus, it’s imperative for Portsmouth to triumph with that front —as the Dragons (2-2 OVC) have already lost at Ironton (34-13) and Gallia Academy (43-35).
It’s also important for the Trojans, winners of two consecutive in Lawrence County the past two weeks, in terms of the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division V Region 19 computer ratings —which are released every Tuesday, and this past week had Fairland (8th with 8.4214 computer points average) and Portsmouth (9th with 7.9184) pitted against each other if the Region 19 playoffs began today.
The top 16 teams in each region qualify for the state playoffs, with the top eight teams earning opening-round home tilts.
A Trojan win means they remain right behind Ironton and Gallia Academy, coupled with a jump into the Region 19’s top eight.
“A lot on the line with what we feel is a pretty tough game ahead of us with Fairland. A lot of playoff points to be had,” said PHS coach Bruce Kalb, in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re all chasing Ironton in the league, and us and Gallia Academy are going to have our chances to knock them off, but we have to get through Fairland first.”
With the Dragons —as opposed to the run-heavy clubs which Portsmouth played in Rock Hill (35-21 win), Coal Grove (43-42 win) and Chesapeake (35-12 win) —the Trojans see a spread-the-field formation unit, which mirrors much, per Kalb, of how Portsmouth plays.
“On film, they remind me a lot of us. Graduated a lot from last year, but still have some playmakers in key positions,” said the coach.
Those Dragons include junior and three-year starting quarterback Peyton Jackson, athletic wideout and junior Brycen Hunt, and seniors Zion Martin and Steeler Leep.
The Trojans’ defensive mindset must be to tackle the athletic Dragons in space, and not allow Fairland to burn them with potentially big scoring plays.
“The (Steeler) Leep kid is, by far, one of the best athletes on their team. We feel the (Brycen) Hunt kid is another good playmaker, Then you throw in the running back (Zion) Martin and the quarterback (Peyton) Jackson. They have some playmakers, really good ones. They do,” said Kalb. “(Fairland) Coach (Melvin) Cunningham does a great job of getting those kids the ball in space and letting them make plays. They just remind me a lot of us. We’ve put a premium on, so far this week in practice, of making sure we wrap up and get them to the ground. Need to be sound on defense, especially in pass defense, because Fairland does throw the ball well.”
For Portsmouth, senior quarterback Tyler Duncan tries to heavily involve his senior wide receivers —Reade Pendleton, Nolan Heiland and cousin Jayden Duncan —while mixing in the running attack with fellow seniors Beau Hammond and Brenden Truett, the latter of whom carried a season-high 10 times for 82 yards and a touchdown last week.
Hammond had handled the bulk of the running load, along with Duncan on scrambles and Pendleton on jet sweeps, prior to both Hammond and Truett — at Chesapeake — carrying at least 10 times for at least 72 yards apiece.
The Trojans’ offensive line is ever-improving as well, gaining in experience and physicality and solidifying the five spots—as they went toe-to-toe with a physically-gifted Coal Grove group —and won.
“Coal Grove is always a tough physical team, and we’re playing them in a hostile environment. It’s just a hard team to play and a hard place to win at,” said Kalb. “Then last week, we got a great game out of Brenden Truett in the backfield. Expect to see him a lot more back there again this week. It was nice to establish what we felt was a pretty solid running game. As teams have continued to spread out the box so much to defend our passing game, it’s given us good running lanes with our backs. We feel we can be very formidable with Hammond, Truett and even Tyler Duncan. Teams are going to have to pick their poison.”
And, if the Dragons had their preference, all their games would be on natural grass —as only Gallia Academy’s Memorial Field features a grass surface other than Fairland for the OVC schools.
The other half-dozen all play on FieldTurf.
“We’re looking forward to this game this year being on turf, and not in the mud. I think you would’ve seen some fireworks last year, had that game been in a different setting,” said Kalb. “And outside of one or two games since we’ve been in the league (since 2015 season) now, it’s always been a good game between Fairland and us.”
Friday night’s, more than likely amid cooler temperatures, probably will be another —with plenty for PHS at stake.
The fantastic Trojan Coliseum, in fact, has never hosted a Portsmouth High per se playoff bout —as it opened in 2009.
“Really big game and it’s nice to be back at home here in the Coliseum. The kids are excited,” said Kalb. “We control our own destiny. But we have to take care of things first and foremost, starting this Friday night.”