Much again on the line as arch-rival Ironmen come to town
By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
LOGAN — Regardless of who they were playing the first six weeks of the season, the Logan Chieftains and Jackson Ironmen both had their collective eyes cast upon week seven of the football season.
Well, week seven is here, and it means the undefeated Chiefs and once-beaten Ironmen are set for what should stand as the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League’s 2015 championship game.
“You wouldn’t want it any other way,” Logan coach Billy Burke said earlier this week as the Chieftains (6-0), ranked No. 7 in the state Associated Press Division II poll and tied for second in their playoff region, prepared for Friday night’s Homecoming clash with the Ironmen (5-1) in Logan Chieftain Stadium.
Kickoff is 7 p.m., following the pre-game festivities.
And not only is the SEOAL championship on the line, but a boatload of computer playoff points are up for grabs as well. The winner takes a huge step towards the post-season playoffs: Logan in Division II Region 5 and Jackson in Division III Region 9, where the Ironmen are second only to 6-0 Zanesville.
“This might be the most raucous environment that we’ve played in… certainly the biggest game most of the kids have ever played in,” said Burke. “I want them to work hard, but at the same time go out and really enjoy the game and play and have fun doing it. And the way you do that is to know that you’re prepared.”
The Chieftains prepared by traveling to far-eastern Belmont County and shutting out host Shadyside 28-0 in workman-like fashion last week. Meanwhile, Jackson overcame a slow start to run through the muck and mud at Warren to whitewash the Warriors 41-0.
Logan shut out an opponent for the first time in five seasons last week and, in so doing, stabilized a defense that had sometimes struggled.
“I like where we are right now,” Burke said. “I think we’ve gotten better each and every week. (The coaches have) learned more about what we have to work with, and I think the kids understand what our strengths are and what we need to continue to work on.
“You want to be peaking at your biggest games, and this is obviously our biggest game to date,” he added. “Anytime you play a league game, it’s always for a league championship because it’s the next game in line. You don’t know how (other league games) are going to play out. What you can control is the work you put into your league championship game, and if we win or lose the next league game could be for a league championship, too.”
Since the rapidly-deteriorating SEOAL only has four members, there are thus only three conference games. Regardless of the records, each one is important.
“We’re treating this like it’s a league championship game,” Burke said, “and if we happen to come out victorious, then we’ll treat the next league game as a league championship game (and so forth) until all is said and done.”
Only unbeaten Wheelersburg (currently ranked No. 2 in the state in Division V), which knocked off the Ironmen 28-7 two weeks ago, keeps this from being a clash of 6-0 teams. Jackson had won 17 consecutive regular-season games prior to its loss to the Pirates.
The Ironmen went undefeated in the regular season and won a playoff game last fall before losing 24-14 to Columbus DeSales — whom the Chiefs play next week — in the Division III Region 9 semifinals.
Jackson rolled past the Chieftains 42-7 in Alumni Stadium en route to wresting the conference title away from the Purple & White last fall. The Chieftains won the league in 2013 on the strength of a 28-21 win over the Ironmen when they scored a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.
All Logan-Jackson games are physical contests, and Burke expects nothing different Friday night.
“We know what kind of success they had last year against us,” Burke recalled. “The first quarter was a bit of a feeling-out process (Logan led 7-0 early before the Ironmen scored the game’s final 42 points) and once they found something that worked they exploited that. We’ve hopefully learned our lesson from that and are prepared for whatever offensive scheme they have ready for us.
“They have a lot of kids who contribute on offense,” he added. “When you have a lot of kids that you believe can play on a Friday night, that gives you the ability to do some different things. They have several kids that are capable of making plays at any time.”
Senior quarterback Hunter Sexton, a two-time All-SEOAL player, leads the offense. He has passed for 359 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 326 yards and three additional scores, but has been somewhat hampered by a leg injury he sustained in Jackson’s week-four 21-0 shutout of Granville.
“We just have to do a good job of doing our thing (on defense),” Burke pointed out. “There’s not necessarily (one particular) kid to key on other than (Sexton), but they have multiple kids who can carry the football and do a lot of things with it.
“We’ve seen some different things from them week-to-week,” he added. “It’s tough to prepare because you don’t quite know what style that they’re prepared to play against us. But that’s sort of the same thing we do: we pick and choose what will match up well with them.”
An improving defense makes Logan’s offense all the more effective. The Chieftains are averaging 38.5 points per game as well as 427.8 yards of total offense, with the rushing/passing ratio being an excellent 223.8/204.0 balance.
That means, of course, Jackson will have to be well-aware of Logan’s stable of skill people — led by quarterback Lane Little, wide receiver Isaiah Smith and running back Bryce McBride — as well as a solid, senior-led offensive line that usually gives all of them ample time to do their thing.
“I’ll say it again: we have a senior-dominated team; we have great senior leadership,” Burke said. “I think those kids have seen enough, done enough, been involved in enough contests to understand that it’s not necessarily about the hype of the game, but it’s the work you put into the process.
“I’ve heard many times you win games through the process of the preparation, not necessarily your actions on the field,” he continued. “Those actions on the field are secondary to the work you’ve put in in preparation for those games.”
And that preparation has helped the Chiefs win eight-consecutive games dating back to the final two contests of the 2014 season.
“We have a couple different ways in which we can make plays and we’ve had some (additional) kids step up lately,” Burke said. “If the ground game doesn’t work as well as we’d like because they’re putting more guys in the box, that should open up the passing game, and vice-versa. And we have the snake (QB Little) back there with the ball in his hands kind of slithering around and making plays like Lane’s capable of.”
Chieftain Nation knows how elusive Little is and that he can do nearly as much damage with his legs and scrambling ability as he does with his arm and QB savvy. He already has 20 touchdown passes — just six behind Patrick Angle’s single-season record of 26 set in 2009 — and has thrown just two interceptions.
Smith’s 10 TD receptions are just three behind the single-season record of 13 shared by D.J. Conrad (1985) and Mason Mays (2008). He’s caught a pass in 22 consecutive games, two behind Mays’ record of 24 set in 2008-09.
“Offense is probably the strength of our team and we’re going to rely heavily on those kids to make plays for us,” Burke said.
The Chiefs are getting a lot of kids involved on both sides of the ball and, now that they are getting a little healthier, they’re developing depth they didn’t have early in the season.
Last week at Shadyside “we got (senior) Corey Wilson more reps on offense,” Burke pointed out. “Bryan Black played his first game and we liked the athleticism we got out of him, and we were able to rest Eddie Lanning and get him ready for this week and our stretch run. We kind of got what we wanted out of” last week.”
Wilson missed the first four games of the season with a shoulder injury and Black did not play the first five games as per OHSAA transfer rules. A move-in from California, Black was involved in five tackles, including one for a loss of yardage, in his first game as a Chieftain last Friday.
Black’s primary “asset is he seems to be able to make plays, and that’s not something you can drill in practice or necessarily coach,” lauded Burke. “He’s going to make a play somehow, some way; sometimes it’s within the scheme of things, and sometimes things break down and you just revert to some backyard football and make plays. That’s something we’ve needed on our defense — guys who clean up and make plays for us that we can’t simulate in practice.
“Colton Stilwell’s another guy who seemed to get comfortable at linebacker last week and make some plays too,” he added.
While the Chiefs are fully-focused on Jackson, they also have that big game at DeSales next week. They’re going into the toughest stretch of their season, and they couldn’t be more excited about it.
“How fun is this going to be?” Burke said. “It’s nice to win all your games, but it’s also nice to have an environment and a game that you talk about and remember for years to come.
“When you have a rival coming in and they’ve had success, and we’ve obviously had some success, these are the kind of things you’ve worked all off-season for,” he added. “Playing in big games like this are the moments that really create memories.”