SALEM - The Quakers' NBC schedule is about to get a little tougher. How tough? Consider this, Salem is 2-2 in the NBC, having beat Carrollton (34-17) and Canton South (17-0) and having lost to Marlington (42-7) and Alliance (35-12). Minerva, the Quakers' opponent tonight, is undefeated in the NBC and overall. The Lions have defeated Canton South (48-20), Louisville (29-26), West Branch (39-26) and Marlington (21-13). The win over the Dukes propelled the Lions into the top spot in the OHSAA Division III, Region 11 computer rankings.
"They (Minerva) are a very disciplined, sound football team," Salem coach Mike Kopachy said. "They're a little different from the other NBC teams we've played. They don't really have superstars, but they have a lot of really good players. Four of their five linemen are returners. They lost a Team Ohio quarterback and running back but have found some kids to step in and do well behind a very experienced offensive line. Minerva is firing on all cylinders and they have had a couple really big wins in the last few weeks."
The Lions have racked up over 3,000 yards of offense so far. With senior Eli Maurer taking snaps, Minerva is 58-of-117 in the air for 1,248 yards and 10 scores. On the ground, junior running back Jake Riley has led a rushing attack that has amassed 1,926 yards and 24 touchdowns on 266 carries.
So what's the Quakers' game plan? Play 48 minutes of football.
The Quakers have shown flashes of offensive brilliance, but the inability to finish drives and play four complete quarters have haunted Salem. Against the Dukes, the Quakers trailed just 21-7 at the end of three. Last week at Alliance, Salem was behind 14-13 with a minute remaining in the third. Defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter and running of gas inside the other team's 20-yard line sealed the Quakers fate in both games.
"We have to play four quarters of football," Kopachy said. "I want 48 minutes with no regrets. At end of game, I want to say we did evertything physically that we could to beat this team. And mentally, we can't beat ourselves. We have to worry about the things we can control and that's effort, intensity and discipline. If we take care of those things, we can come out on top. We have to give ourself a chance to win the football game."
Salem has 2,081 total yards of offense - 1,275 rushing and 806 passing. Senior running back Austin Noel leads with 829 yards and seven touchdowns on 156 carries. Junior QB Jake Carner is 61-of-102 for all 806, five scores and three interceptions. Zack Penick is the top receiver. He has 35 receptions for 404 yards and two scores. The senior needs just 13 more catches in the final three games to break Ben Eisel's career-reception record of 130. Penick currently has 118. Marcus Crittenden has 22 catches for 251 and two touchdowns.
Indeed, the Quakers can move the ball, but have failed to do so in their opponents red zone time and time again. This week in practice, the Quakers focused on the short field.
"Our emphasis has been the red zone this week," Kopachy said. "We don't have a lot of depth with our numbers being down a little bit from last year and injuries taken a toll on our team, but we need to do better in the red zone. We did a live red zone period in practice where we got the sticks out and allowed the scout team to be loaded up with defensive starters and we focused on finishing drives. Our players responded well and we're going to do whatever it takes to get more comfortable in the red zone and have confidence in the red zone. This is something we're going to continue to do all year and even in the future when we start struggling to finish drives."
A complete performance is necessary tonight. If the Quakers play four quarters of Salem football, an upset could easily happen.
"I'd like to see a maximum effort for 48 minutes," Kopachy said. "I want to look our players in the eyes at the end of the game when that clock hits zero and know, that win or lose, we did all that we could. I'm not asking for that players to step up and do anything extraordinary. All I'm asking them to do is play up to their abilities for 48 minutes. That's all we want tonight and any week. If we come out and play they way we're capable of playing, we can win this game."