By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor email@example.com
LOGAN — This week’s non-conference game at Zanesville is anything but a “break” from the Logan Chieftains’ quest for a Southeastern Ohio Athletic League football championship.
In football, taking a “break” basically means you’re either on a bye week or you’re playing someone that should offer little resistance when it comes to earning another victory.
That’s not Zanesville. Not now, and not in recent seasons.
And, while it’s not an SEOAL or East Central Ohio League matchup, it is a meeting of two teams in the same OHSAA playoff division and region (Division II, Region 5) and, in a sense, an opening-round playoff game for the Purple & White.
“Each game has sort of a theme to it,” said Logan coach Billy Burke. “We’ve played a couple league games, and we tried to get off and running (after losing three of their first four games) against Nelsonville. This week is like our playoff game.
“We’re in a pretty tough spot in the region,” he added, “so if the cards fall right for us (and the Chiefs could win their final three games), and if 7-3 got us in, so be it… we’re looking at this week as an opportunity to see what kind of a playoff team we might be.”
While Zanesville is second in the region and likely bound for the playoffs, the Chiefs are No. 17 and would need to leapfrog a bunch of teams to make the post-season for the first time since ’09.
“We’ll treat this Friday like it’s a playoff game for us,” Burke said. “If we don’t win this game we don’t have much of a chance (of qualifying). This is a win-and-possibly-get-a-chance-to-get-in” game.
While the Chiefs (4-3 overall) are on a roll of late, having won three-straight games and four of their last five to go above the .500 mark for the first time in four years, the undefeated (7-0) Blue Devils' roll has lasted all season. They jumped to No. 3 in this week’s Associated Press Division II poll.
To say the Blue Devils will be a challenge — Zanesville averages 46.9 points per game and has outscored its first seven foes by 34.6 points per contest — for the improving Chieftains is an understatement.
With the exception of last week’s 28-14 ECOL Scarlet Division victory at then-undefeated New Philadelphia, the Blue Devils’ closest game has been 21 points… and two first-half interceptions by the Blue Devils kept the game at New Philly close.
The former SEOAL rivals (Zanesville was a member of the SEOAL from 2006-07 through 2008-09) meet for the first time since 2010. Then, the Blue Devils snapped a 10-game losing streak to Logan teams when they won 39-10 at Zanesville.
While that’s all ancient history so far as these two incarnations of Chiefs and Blue Devils are concerned, this Zanesville team has many similarities to those Logan teams who went undefeated in the regular season and won a playoff game in both 2008 and 2009.
Zanesville is “what everybody thinks of in terms of a spread team,” Burke noted. “They don’t have a tight end… they have good (players at the) skill positions, and the quarterback (Thomas Wibbeler) likes to throw it around all over the field.”
Both the Chiefs and Blue Devils have played (and beaten) winless Newark. Zanesville bashed the Wildcats 49-13 in week one while the Chiefs beat the Licking Countians 32-27 in week three.
“They’re pretty comparable to Newark with the exception that (Wibbeler) has more dangerous receivers where Newark targeted one guy,” Burke noted. “They have a better running game than Newark. They have a fair balance between running and throwing… but they make their money throwing the ball.”
Even though it was nearly two months ago, viewing clips of Zanesville’s season-opening game against Newark is still helpful to the Chiefs.
“We do look at it confirm or deny some tendencies,” Burke said. “It’s always nice to have as much film on an opponent as possible. Their team has evolved and changed from early in the season, the same as ours has.”
One thing that’s evolved about the Chieftains is their emerging confidence.
After falling behind Jackson 7-0 at halftime last week, and being whistled for four first-half personal foul penalties (upon this reporter's review of the game footage, however, three of those miscues have to be classified as being suspect to non-existent), the Chiefs not only regained their composure but, when Jackson tied the game with less than a minute to play on a fourth-and-nine touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion, they remained undaunted.
The Chiefs needed just 36 seconds to drive 50 yards for the winning touchdown with just over 22 seconds remaining, with rapidly-maturing quarterback Nick Kost leading the way and scoring on a 7-yard run.
Kost threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for two other scores in what was, by far, his best performance behind center to date.
“We threw a couple passes in that situation,” Burke said. “We called some things that were safe for us and made some big plays (during that drive) — and anytime you make plays, it generates confidence throughout your whole unit, whether it be offense or defense.
“We got off to a good start on that last drive and it snowballed from there,” he added.
The Chiefs have done their best to utilize different formations and roll out a different wrinkle or two to keep not only their current opponent guessing but give future foes something to think about.
For example, they’ve used a catch-and-lateral play — with the pass receiver quickly shoveling the ball off to Isaac Schmeltzer, trailing the play, for additional yardage — each of the last two weeks.
“You try not to be predictable, and we were predictable the other night,” Burke said, “so we had to make sure we did some things differently. What are some teams seeing on you? You (have to) change it up from time to time but, at the same time, don’t out-coach yourself… and I’ve done that a couple times this season.
“I’ve probably done a little more than I should have done,” he continued, “but sometimes it’s a little easier said than done. (You don’t want to) be predictable but at the same time you (don’t want to) confuse your kids.”
Confusing future opponents is another story altogether. Burke cited the Chiefs’ steady improvement in their running game as an example.
“We do different things with our running backs,” Burke noted. “We’ve had this three-running back package that’s been pretty good to us… but we do things differently out of it so that it’s a different look each week.
What's made it work cohesively in recent weeks “is Nick Kost,” Burke continued. “He understands the concept of the play and how the guys line up. (His consistency) makes him able to help all of those guys because he’s been doing the same thing and he knows the concept.
“Football is a game of routine anyway — if you get some routine and some consistency going, and you feel comfortable and confident about the things that you do, having a guy back there (Kost) who’s been there essentially all along has been really beneficial.”