Big Red begins title defense in familiar territory
STEUBENVILLE — Big Red’s quest for a second straight Ohio Division IV championship begins Saturday with a Region 13 quarterfinal match against a very familiar foe.
Akron Buchthel will invade Harding Stadium (the kick is set for 7 p.m.) for its 10th all-time meeting with Big Red. Steubenville holds a 7-2 edge in the series, its last victory coming in the 2012 regular season finale. The Griffins knocked off Big Red in the 1987 and 1988 Division II title games. Big Red did get the best of Buchtel in the 2005 semifinals.
The Griffins earned the seventh seed thanks to last week’s 28-12 victory over Akron East, which entered at 8-1. Big Red, making its 18th-straight playoff appearance, finished at 9-1 and is seeded second in Region 13. Buchtel, coached by Ricky Powers, will bring a 6-4 mark to town.
“We had a ton of respect for Ricky Powers as a player and now we have a ton of respect for him as a coach,” said Big Red’s Reno Saccoccia. “He’s done a great job with his Buchtel team. They are polished, well-coached, gap sound defensively and well versed on offense.
“They stuck with it. They appeared to be a deep hole and out of the playoffs. But, they finished the season strong and had a great win over Akron East. They deserve to be where they are — in the playoffs.”
Buchtel’s four losses have come to Avon, Canton McKinley, Lakewood St. Edward, and Akron St Vincent-St. Mary, three of which have qualified for postseason play. SVSM finished 7-3 and missed the playoffs. The Griffins have defeated Peninsula Woodridge, Akron Firestone, Akron North, Akron Kenmore and Akron Ellet. The win over East gave Buchtel the Akron city series title.
“They played an outstanding schedule,” Saccoccia said of the Griffins. “In my opinion, it’s the toughest schedule in Division IV. They did a great job with that schedule.”
Offensively, the Griffins have scored 254 points in their 10 games while allowing 129.
“They’re really half- and-half offensively when it comes to the run and pass,” Saccoccia said. “In some games, they have thrown it more and in other games, they have run it more.
“As a team overall, they have five or six weapons and they use them all. Their defensive line is solid and also is a weapon.”
The Buchtel offense is directed by senior quarterback Mychael Leno. He’s joined in the backfield by running backs Robert Young-Jones, a sophomore, Kirkland Robins, a senior, and Ja’Mell Jacobs, another sophomore.
When Leno goes to the air, he has a host of weapons. Starting wide receivers are senior Zayir Keen, senior Martavien Johnson and senior Chase Powers. Marquest Foster, a senior, starts at tight end.
Across the offensive front, Buchtel is huge.
The tackles are senior Marquest Jacobs and sophomore Sha’heen Williams. Senior Winford Dowdy Jr. and freshman Keisean Johnson-Wilson start at guards while sophomore John Thompson mans the center spot.
Junior Ricky Good, senior Jaren Tatum, senior O’Rell Williams and Jacobs start on the defensive line, Saccoccia mentioned.
“I really think this is the toughest first-round draw we’ve had since back in the day of playing Cardinal Mooney and Ursuline,” Saccoccia said. “They deserve to be where they are and we deserve to be where we are. I think it is going to be a great football game.”
After dropping its opener to Penn Hills, Big Red reeled off nine straight victories to close the regular season. In the finale against University School, Steubenville rolled to a 49-19 victory thanks to another huge game by junior tailback Tayveon Crawford (249 yards and four touchdowns). Crawford finished the regular season with 1,414 yards — he rushed for 909 in the final four weeks.
Big Red’s offense averages 390 yards (291 on the ground) per game and 36 points.
Senior quarterback Clayton Criss has completed 62 percent of his passes for 868 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Ethan Duggan has 15 receptions, senior Ryan Rauch 14 and senior Erik Lulla 11, six producing scores.
Defensively, Steubenville — which finished second in the final Ohio AP Division IV poll — surrenders 233 yards a game (just 75 on the ground) and 18 points.
Lulla, a two-year starter at middle linebacker, has recorded 92 tackles, six sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. Senior nose guard Kwadre Williams, another two year regular, logged 54 tackles, 17 resulting in a loss of yardage, and eight sacks. Senior defensive end Jaziah Blackwell has been in 52 tackles and recorded 10 sacks. Blackwell also has 18 tackles for a loss.
Junior linebacker Dave Tuttle has 52 tackles (16 TFL) and four sacks. Senior Dylan Cunningham has 56 tackles from his strong safety position, five resulting in a loss. He also has two sacks.
“We’re getting healthier,” Saccoccia said of his Big Red. “Hopefully, we can get one more player back this week. That will allow us to be about 90 percent two-platoon for Saturday.”
In other first round Region 13 games, eighth-seeded Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy visits top-seeded Perry, No. 6 Indian Creek travels to No. 3 Hubbard and Youngstown East, the fourth seed, hosts fifth-seeded Girard.
“There are eight good teams in our region, no doubt,” Saccoccia said. “The first game is the toughest for everyone. You have to be totally prepared. You can’t worry about any outside stuff — like injuries or the weather. Anything you can’t control, you can’t worry about.
“We can really only control two things — how we play and how we coach. It’s a team thing — it’s how the coaches prepare the players and how the players execute. We both have to be ready in order for us to be successful.”
When discussing his program’s incredible playoff streak, Saccoccia said the key issue now centers on “what this team has done.”
“The 17 teams before were outstanding but their accomplishments really don’t matter now,” he said. “It all how this team has done and how it has improved every week.
“If grind is worth anything, then we just have to do it for another week.”