Weekly Preview: Resilient Riders Face Another Road Test

St. Marys’ Ty Howell looks for an opening as he runs wide to the weak side during a Western Buckeye League football game against Defiance last week.
Sports Editor

From being deemed an “average” football team prior to the beginning of the regular season by Roughriders coach Doug Frye to prior days leading up to the start of the postseason, St. Marys has not only developed as a better team on the football field but the team has developed a sense of resiliency throughout — especially in the early part in order to overcome a 1-2 start.

After an inconsistent performance in the final scrimmage against Bellefontaine in August, Frye described his team as average and challenged his players to step up. A week later against Sidney, St. Marys was not particularly sharp in its season-opener against before losing the next two games to fall to 1-2. After rebounding against Van Wert and Shawnee — the former in the Roughriders’ highly-anticipated home opener at their new stadium — the team faced its largest test with the postseason on the line against Kenton and came out top. That resiliency the team has developed as served the Roughriders well, but that resiliency will be tested again in the playoffs.

“It is a compliment to the resiliency and work ethic of the kids, it is a compliment to our program, to our coaching staff to continue to plug at it and find a way to have the best team on the field,” Frye said. “There are a lot of teams and programs that have a 1-2 start and 0-2 in the league who would have finished this thing at 4-6 or 5-5 or that they don’t have a belief in the system.

“The kids believe in the system and that if you keep doing the right thing, good things are going to happen to you.”

It is not often that a St. Marys team starts a season 1-2 or worse — six times since 2000. The last St. Marys team to open a season 1-2 and still make it to the playoffs was in 2002 — also under Frye — when that team defeated Sidney 20-7 in the season opener but lost the next two games also to Wapakoneta and Ottawa-Glandorf by a combined 33 points and also lost to state champion Kenton that season.

But that team also advanced to a regional semifinal.

“I think we have developed a great sense of resiliency. We have played so many kids, have had so many injuries and we have juggled people but our kids just continue to move forward and that is what we preach,” the coach said.

Hopefully developing that sense of resiliency will come in handy beginning Friday with the Roughriders’ first-ever trip to Franklin.

The Wildcats (9-1, 6-1 SWBL) won the Southwestern Buckeye League’s Southwestern Division by outscoring its opponents 197-65 and 317-144 overall. 

Franklin has also had a share of impressive wins against a pair of 8-2 teams and lost to Division II Xenia (9-1) by one score (27-20). The Wildcats also have a share of close games against Bellbrook (8-2) with a 21-14 overtime win, Preble Shawnee (5-5) with a 38-36 victory and Valley View (8-2) with a 23-20 win.

The Wildcats enter play Friday on a seven-game win streak and have won 14 of their last 15 games dating back to last season. In 2018, the Wildcats opened the season 0-3 and 1-4 before finishing the year with wins in their final five games and outscoring teams 138-44 to finish 5-1 in the SWBL and 10th in the region. 

Franklin has made the postseason three of the last four years and is making its 12th postseason trip overall.

Three-year starter, SWBL First-Team selection and the league’s offensive player of the year Braden Woods is Franklin’s quarterback and second-leading rusher. He has shown to be an efficient passer as the senior is 93-of-128 passing for 1,421 yards — third-most in the league — 16 touchdowns — third-most in the league — and two interceptions. He has passed for more than 3,700 yards in his career. As a runner, he has 554 yards on 123 carries and six touchdowns. The Wildcats’ leading rusher, however, is senior back and first-team all-leaguer Gabe Johnson who racked up 837 yards on 130 carries and an SWBL-leading 16 touchdowns — tied with Brookville’s Connor Michael for the most in the league.

Woods’ top receiver is Ryan Russel with his 38 receptions for 582 yards and five scores along with Bret Dalton (All-SWBL Honorable Mention) with 326 receiving yards on 18 catches and five TDs. Dylan Dirks (14 catches, 197 yards and five TDs) is another threat for Franklin. Those three pass-catchers combined for 70 of the team’s 95 receptions and 1,105 of the team’s 1,452 receiving yards.

The offense is bolstered by four returning starters on the line with senior left tackle Nick Back, junior center Cajun Allen, senior right guard Noah Stephens and junior right tackle Caleb Barnhart.

On the defensive side of the ball, Aiden Kinser (88 tackles) and Izac Proctor (65 tackles, 6 sacks) — both first-team all-league players — are the Wildcats leading tacklers.

The Wildcats are under the direction of Brad Childers, who is in his sixth season with the program with a 44-19 overall record.

Frye said as far as schemes go, Franklin is almost identical to what it ran in 2016 and he added that there will be familiarity for both coaching staff. 

“Obviously the dynamics of each team will be different,” Frye added. “They are bigger in the trenches than they have been in the past, they’re skilled, but there is not a [Ryan] Montgomery (Franklin’s dynamic quarterback in 2016) lined up anywhere and I am sure our dynamics as a team are different than there were in ‘16.”

Franklin runs a spread offense to feed its receivers and Frye said he believes Franklin resembles Ottawa-Glandorf the most but added that the Wildcats probably have more size in the trenches than O-G.

“I think it forces us to play responsibility football and to make sure we try to read our keys and follow our roles,” Frye said. “There isn’t exactly one guy to key on more than others.”

In Defensive Coordinator Nick Yahl’s defense, he has the corners play off the line of scrimmage or soft, which allows teams to want to counter the by throwing screens or stick routes and prompting fans to want those players to move up to the line. Frye added that his team plays against a lot of athletes throughout the season, some of those more athletic than the players he has. But the base philosophy, he said, is to stop the run and pressure the quarterback to force mistakes and not allow an easy touchdown on a deep ball. 

“It is important and I think, because they are so balanced, to play a very responsibility-driven defense from the standpoint that we don’t give up the big play,” Frye added. “With Montgomery in the past, you knew where the ball was going and right now we are not sure who is going to get the ball because they like to spread it around.”

Adding to the familiarity that the two teams have, Frye said it has been an advantage come playoff time when teams are not familiar with what St. Marys runs on offense and added that this week maybe a little bit of a negative for St. Marys that Franklin has a clue to what the team is going to run and what the team is doing and the concept of how to adjust to that.

“But it has been since 2016 since we have matched up,” Frye said. “The key is not what the coaches know, the key is how you are able to communicate that with your players.”

Frye added that Franklin has played a few teams similarly on offense that play what St. Marys plays such as Bellbrook, Edgewood and Xenia who have wing-T concepts but not exactly what St. Marys runs.

Frye has talked in the past about the benefits of having multiple fullbacks to use because each back has a different running style, but Frye also added that it can be good and bad to not have a main back — such as an Eric Spicer in 2016 or a Sean Perry and 2017 and ‘18.

“But it allows us to go to a number of different people and there hasn’t been any specific reason for that other than the fact that we have had some unfortunate injuries and we have had to adjust a little bit,” Frye added.


• Defense is key

The two teams rely heavily on their defense. 

Franklin runs a 50 defense — which is designed to help stop the run. Also known as the “Oklahoma Defense,” its basic formation is five defensive lineman and two linebackers to stack players up at the line of scrimmage to stuff the running game. A safety will sometimes cheat down to create a third linebacker spot. The Wildcats are allowing just 14.4 points per game on defense compared to scoring 31.7 points per game on offense. In two of their last three games, the Wildcats have shutout opponents (67-0) to a pair of Division IV teams with a combined 4-16 record. Franklin has played four teams with a winning record with two of them qualifying for the playoffs. St. Marys has also played four teams with a winning record with three teams in its schedule advancing to the playoffs. They are scoring 33.6 points per game compared to allowing 16.1 points per game.

Frye has talked about the defensive line being a strength for his defense. Entering play on Friday, the Roughriders have amassed 44 sacks as a team — led by sure candidate for defensive lineman of the year Blake Kanorr with his 11 sacks to go along with his 114 tackles. Trey Fisher is second on the team with seven sacks, followed by Brandon Paul with six. Tanner Howell has filled in nicely for the injured Ty Schlosser at middle linebacker with a team-best 126 tackles to go along with three sacks, a fumble recovery and a returned touchdown. It will be interesting to see if the game turns into a bit of a defensive struggle or if both defenses will struggle and the game becomes a shootout.

• First-half dominance

The first half has been a key for the Roughriders all season. Entering play on Friday, the Roughriders have outscored teams 191-80, including a 110-44 advantage in the second quarter. A fast start always helps a team full of younger players like St. Marys, but it will also help on the road against a Franklin team St. Marys is not used to playing against. 

The last time the Roughriders trailed at any time in the first half was against Defiance last week, but St. Marys has only trailed once at halftime this season, that being against Sidney in week 1. Starting fast allows the Roughriders to get into a mode where they can milk the clock on offense and pin its defense to pressuring the quarterback in the second half. 

After opening the game by scoring a touchdown either on a kickoff return or the first offensive possession of the game in five straight games, the Roughriders have taken a little longer to get going in the last two weeks. Against better opponents like Franklin, that could be an issue.

“I think it always is regardless if you are home or away it is always nice to get off to a fast start,” Frye said. “I think both teams at this point are pretty resilient and I think both teams have seen enough different situations that it is still important.”