Some Thoughts Prior to the Big Game by Tiger Don 9/11/02
I couldn’t let this week go by with adding some of my own thoughts to the upcoming matchup between Massillon and Cleveland St. Ignatius. It’s the new tradition vs. the old tradition. It’s a little like Massillon vs. McKinley, except there are still many more games left after this one. It’s probably more like the old All-American Conference; a Massillon-Warren game or a Massillon-Niles game.
Then again, it’s different from those old AAC games, because Massillon has never beaten Ignatius. Come close a few times, but never gone over the top. Could this be the year that the torch passes? Others have done it; why not Massillon? It would be big. It would be huge. Not as big as winning the state title, but still large in its own way. Although it won’t be the end of the world for the loser, it will surely establish some bragging rights.
A Little on Ignatius
The Wildcats have been playing football for a long time, but didn’t really emerge as a state power until 1988. That’s the year they ran the table and captured their first state title with a 10-7 win over Cincinnati Princeton. Since then they’ve won eight more playoff championships and are perennially considered the favorite.
Their dominance is particularly evident among public schools. From 1988 on they have won 103 games against their counterparts vs. just 11 losses; 61-6 in regular season and 42-5 in playoff action. Six different teams boast of wins over Ignatius: Boardman (3), Canton McKinley (2), Austintown Fitch, Lima Senior, Solon, and Berwick of Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the games were close with just one team winning by more than a touchdown, that being Solon, a 31-13 winner in the 2000 playoffs.
Massillon is 0-5 against the Wildcats, three of the contests having been in the playoffs. Aside from those, the Tigers are 23-9 against the private types in that same period, including a couple of wins over Cincinnati Moeller.
Ignatius enters the game with an uncharacteristic 2-1 record. The opener was played over the course of two days on account of the bad weather. Down 10-0 against Westerville North, the Wildcats came back the next day to win 28-18. North has since split their next two contests, losing to a good Columbus Brookhaven team, 18-13, and beating Westerville South, 26-19.
The second week spelled disaster when five turnovers led to a 29-23 victory by Boardman. Carter Welo gained over 200 yards on the ground, but the Wildcat passing game sputtered. Boardman followed up the next week with a 42-27 win over Youngstown Chaney.
Last Saturday Ignatius rebounded with a solid 28-0 win over Erie Cathedral Prep. That was Prep’s second game of the season after defeating Waterdown, Canada, 52-0. A traditional Pennsylvania power, Prep is in the midst of rebuilding after an outstanding season last year.
A Little on Massillon
Tigers are scoring points like there’s no tomorrow, with marks of 43-7, 76-6 and 60-0. In fact, after last week’s blowout of Akron Garfield, they were three just shy of the 1935 Massillon record for total points scored in the first three games of the season. Is this year’s edition better than last year’s, or is it just the same package in a different wrapper?
Last year Massillon downed Westerville North, Fremont Ross and Akron Garfield by a combined score of 157-13. This year the Tiger advantage was 179-12, with the competition being slightly ahead of last year. You can only score so many points in a game so we’ll call this one even.
Offensively, the formations are the same but the complexion has changed. Last year’s team favored the pass (54%) featuring quarterback Justin Zwick, while this year’s likes the run (71%), putting the ball in the hands of Ricky Johnson. That doesn’t mean the 2002 team can’t put the ball in the air effectively. In fact, the average gain per reception is 14.3 yards vs. 12.7 a year ago. That’s because Massillon has a pair of outstanding receivers this year in Devin Jordon and Stephan Ashcraft.
The leading ball carrier in 2001 was Robert Oliver, who had 38 carries for 303 yards and an 8.0 per carry average. Johnson this year has gained 392 yards on 43 carries at 9.1 yards a clip. This year’s team leads in total yards per game, 487-413, and yards per play, 8.9-7.1. In spite of being ground-oriented, this year’s team scores from an average of 24 yards out against 12 from last year’s team.
Defensively, the statistics are about the same between the two teams. Both have surrendered around 3.5 yards per play. The opponents don’t complete as many passes, but they seem to go for a few more yards. But there are two statistics that stands out. The first is that the 2002 team seems to put opponents away earlier in the game, using a physical ferocity that does not let up regardless of the score. The second is turnover ratio. In 2001, Massillon’s takeaway-giveaway difference was just two, whereas this year’s difference is nine. And that doesn’t include three blocked punts. Offensively, the Tigers have lost just one fumble and thrown just a single interception.
So which team is better? Of course it’s hard to tell given the differences in offensive philosophy and the mediocre competition. But this year’s edition is bigger, quicker and more experienced, especially on defense, factors that will come into play more against the top foes like Ignatius and Warren.
This will be Coach Rick Shepas’ fourth try against the Wildcats. Here’s a look at the previous three.
2000 regular season: Ignatius 36-21 – The Wildcats opened a 10-0 lead before Justin Zwick threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 10-7 at the half. In the third quarter Massillon scored first and the two teams traded the lead four times with Ignatius finishing on top 24-21. But a pair of van der Ord touchdown runs late in the game put it out of reach. Although the offensive yards were even, Massillon had absolutely no running game, finishing with just 5 yards on 16 carries. Zwick connected on 27 of 60 for 360 yards and three TDs.
2001 regular season: Ignatius 40-26 – The Wildcats scored on their first possession and then recovered a Massillon fumble at the Tiger ten, which they converted into another score to lead 14-0. The Tigers came back on their next two possessions to close the gap to 14-12 by the end of the first quarter, but the Wildcats scored twice and went into the locker room up 28-12. Massillon came out hot in the third with a pair of Zwick touchdown passes cutting the lead to 28-26, but Ignatius scored one more TD, and added a field goal and safety in the fourth. Once again the Tigers lacked the running game, coming up with just 11 yards on 17 carries. Zwick was 16 of 27 for 281 yards, but also had three interceptions. Meanwhile, Ignatius’ quarterback had a career day, completing 24 of 37 passes for 295 yards and four touchdowns.
2002 playoffs: Ignatius 49-20. This game was close until the fourth quarter, which began with a 28-20 Wildcat lead. The difference was a second quarter fumble that Ignatius recovered in the Massillon end zone to open a 14-point lead. The fourth quarter belonged to Ignatius, scoring three touchdowns against a tired Tiger defense. One positive was that Massillon finally found the ground game, grinding out 173 yards on 37 carries, 4.7 yards per carry. But again they were vulnerable through the air on defense, surrendering 13 completions in 25 attempts for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Tony Gonzalez, their outstanding wide receiver, caught five balls for 152 yards.
Based on the outcomes of these three games, the key to victory for the Tigers is obvious: score more points. Aside from that, offensively they will have to establish the running game, one of their strengths this year. Expect Ignatius to push their 4-4 alignment up into a 6-2 to apply pressure on the ends. That will force the Tigers to run the ball between the tackles and keep the quarterback from setting up for mid and long-range passes. Their defensive backs will be utilized in man-to-man if their center linebackers blitz, zone if they don’t. That may favor the speedy Tiger receivers at times.
On the other side of the ball, Massillon must keep the Iggy passing game in check. They must use their speed at outside linebacker to hound Ignatius’ junior quarterback and their closing speed at linebacker and defensive back to contain Carter Welo, their primary runner. Finally, the Tigers must win the fourth quarter. All three of the previous games were within a touchdown going into the final frame and decided thereafter.
If they do all that, Massillon can come out a winner for the first time in this young rivalry. If not, then they will have to hope for a second chance in the playoffs. See you at the ball park.