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Big Red faces do-or-die situation

GIVING IT THEIR ALL — The Big Red football team will close its regular season against Linsly on Friday, needing a win to guarantee a playoff berth for the 19th-consecutive season. - Joe Catullo

STEUBENVILLE — Big Red and Linsly will be looking to snap surprising two-game losing streaks when they collide Friday on Reno Field inside Harding Stadium.

The kick for the first meeting between the schools since 1943 is set for 7 p.m. Big Red holds a 5-0-1 lead in its series with Linsly (the tie took place in 1903.)

Big Red, which will definitely clinch its 19th-consecutive berth in the playoffs with a victory, is 5-3 and coming off consecutive losses to National Christian Academy from Maryland (56-55 in overtime) and Division II power Columbus DeSales (31-18).

Reno Saccoccia’s club currently is ranked seventh in the Division III, Region 9 computer standings.

After marching through their first seven opponents, the Cadets dropped close verdicts to Kiski School (28-26) and Hudson Western Reserve Academy (19-14). Linsly, which is considered a Division VI school by Ohio enrollment standards, owns wins over Martins Ferry, Wheeling Central, Morgantown and Point Pleasant.

The schools have a common opponent in Pittsburgh Allderdice. Big Red started its season with a 42-7 rout of the Dragons, while Linsly rolled to a 48-20 victory.

“When our schedule first came out, people questioned if we could handle it because it was so tough,” Linsly coach B.J. Depew said. “Everyone pointed to Week 10 and the match-up with Big Red. This season really has been about the experiences our kids have had along the way. Our guys have risen to the challenge many times this year, and I’m sure they are excited to do it again.

“The past two weeks have been difficult for us in terms of the outcomes. I don’t think those losses will influence the energy our guys will bring into the game. We’re excited to play in Harding Stadium against an excellent football team.”

Saccoccia sees Friday’s game as one his Big Red “just needs to win.”

“Linsly is a very well- coached, very good football team that has dealt with plenty of injuries this season,” he said. “When they are healthy, they are one of the better teams around.

“It’s not about Linsly right now — it’s about us doing what we have to do to represent our city, our families and our football team better than we have so far this year. We’ve lost two games in a row. It’s time for us to concentrate on winning the game.”

When healthy, athletic junior Hunter Kelly (6-foot-4, 175 pounds) directs the Linsly offensive attack. In seven games (he missed the Martins Ferry contest in Week 2 and Saturday against Western Reserve), Kelly has thrown for 847 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s completed 56 of his 98 attempts and thrown three interceptions. He also is a threat running the football, having gained 428 yards on 49 carries and scored twice.

Koby Hill, a two-year letterwinner at wide receiver, is Kelley’s backup. He passed for 49 yards in the game against Western Reserve, which was played in a downpour.

Linsly’s leading rusher is Carl Nyh, a 5-10, 195-pound senior. He has 854 yards on 101 carries. Nyh has nine rushing touchdowns. Senior Logan Gill (5-5, 140) also will see time in Linsly’s backfield.

With 25 receptions for 419 yards and four touchdowns, speedy senior Trevin Tush is Linsly’s leading receiver. He also missed the Western Reserve game.

“We have some guys healing up,” Depew said. “There’s no way to accurately predict when guys will be ready. We’re hoping to get some guys back this week. We’ll have a better idea later in the week.

“That’s probably one of the advantages Steubenville will have. They have strong depth, and they always do. I know coach Reno works hard to make sure he has plenty of guys he can count on for varsity snaps. Our roster is not as big or experienced. We have received contributions from a lot of guys this year. Some of that has been due to injury — kind of the next-man-up scenario.”

Linsly has been blessed with physical, effective and nice-sized offensive linemen in recent years, and this season is no exception.

Nils Braun (6-7, 330), Chance Knight (6-3, 225) and Kevin Espinoza (6-4, 360) are veterans up front. Florian Hirsch (6-4, 255) and Dominik Ondra (6-6, 320) also see action.

“Up front, they’re monsters of the midway,” Saccoccia said. “They go, 360, 330 and 320. Their smallest offensive lineman is around 250, and their tight end is 6-4. The line is big, strong and very physical. They do an outstanding job, and dealing with that line will be a challenge for us.

“They have two really good tailbacks and a couple of solid wide receivers. When Kelly’s at quarterback and Hill’s at wide receiver, that’s their strongest offensive lineup. Linsly is a very talented football team.”

In nine games, the Cadets have scored 286 points, while allowing 157. Knight is Linsly’s defensive leader.

“This is a big challenge for us,” Depew said. “It’s the kind of game that would make a lot of past Linsly players jealous because this year’s group gets the opportunity to play in front of a big crowd against a program with a great tradition.

“Our guys really do see each game as a unique opportunity. We are thrilled to have such a meaningful game in Week 10. We have great respect for the Big Red program, and we know the entire valley does, as well. We’re looking forward to putting our kids on a big stage and kind of cutting loose, finishing the year on a high note.”

Through eight games, Big Red’s offense is averaging 445 yards and 37 points per contest. Defensively, Saccoccia’s team allows 292 yards and 27 points.

The offense is paced by senior tailback Tayveon Crawford. He has rushed for 1,734 yards on 257 trips and scored 23 touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.75 yards a tote. Senior quarterback Randy Mitchell has completed 63 percent of his passes for 908 yards and eight scores. Stone Biacco, also a senior, is Big Red’s top receiver with 26 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns.

“Big Red is a complete team with great discipline and is so well coached,” Depew said. “It’s impressive to see them operate — they really are a football machine.

“Crawford is as good of a running back as we have seen this year. We faced a pretty special back at Kiski two weeks ago named Princeton Douglas. He’s rumored to be heading to a Division I college. He has great speed and is explosive. We feel Crawford is as much as a threat if not more than he was.”

Friday will mark the final regular-season appearance at Harding Stadium for Big Red’s 25 seniors.

“We want to try to get this one to help our seniors finish their home schedule on a positive note,” Saccoccia said. “The coaches, our sophomores and our juniors will do whatever we can to help our seniors end on a positive note.”

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