Battle of Unbeatens Set for Harding Stadium in Steubenville

Photo by Mike McElwain Steubenville leading rusher Jacob Bernard has been a load for defenders to bring down all season.

STEUBENVILLE — Steubenville coach Reno Saccoccia is looking forward to Friday and a “game that should be played all the time.”

Saccoccia’s Big Red, Ohio’s top-ranked Division IV squad, will match 7-0 records with New Philadelphia on Friday inside Harding Stadium. The kick for the first meeting between the schools since 1924 is set for 7 p.m.

“I’m glad Coach (Matt) Dennison offered to play us,” Saccoccia said. “I think this is a game that should be played all the time. I believe it’s going to be a good game for both communities.

“We expect to play a well-coached team. Matt’s father (the legendary Jim Dennison) probably is one of the top five all-time college coaches in Ohio for what he did at Akron and Walsh. Matt and his brother (Gregg, now the head coach at Medina Buckeye after previously serving at Wadsworth) both are really good coaches. They are an extension of their dad. We’re proud to be playing against a Dennison-coached team.”

Jim Dennison retired in 2012 after 53 years as an administrator and 31 as a coach. He spent 18 years as the first and only head coach of Walsh’s football program. He coached the University of Akron from 1973 to 1985 and is the winningest coach in program history. Dennison was an offensive coach when Saccoccia played for the Zips.

Saccoccia described New Philly as a “confident football team that is very well coached and very balanced.”

The Quakers, who stand fourth in the Division III, Region 11 computer ratings, have defeated Claymont (6-1), West Holmes (2-5), Canal Fulton Northwest (1-6), Columbus St. Charles (1-6), Canton Central Catholic (2-5), Marietta (4-3) and Zanesville (3-4).

Offensively, New Philly is averaging 38 points a game while its defense allows 16.

Sophomore Baron May directs the offensive attack. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound signalcaller has thrown for 1,373 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s completed 76 of 134 passing attempts. A dual-threat, May also leads the Quakers with 669 rushing yards on 78 trips, good for seven scores.

“He’s lightning in a bottle,” Dennison said. “He’s very polished for his age and that’s a credit to him. As a sophomore, he can read a defense so well and he learns so quickly and he recognizes both mistakes and opportunities — and wants to learn more.

“The scary thing is, he’s got room for improvement and he can get better.”

May set a new single-game record for passing yards in the victory against Marietta as he completed 17 of 23 passes for 340 yards. That broke the previous record set in 2007.

He also rushed for 151 yards on 14 carries, giving him an eye-popping 491 combined offensive yards for what is believed to be another school record.

“We don’t face many quarterbacks like him,” Saccoccia said. “The surprising thing is he’s so young, only a sophomore, but he plays with the poise of a senior.

“The quarterback and tailback (senior Kye Crowthers) are both good players. They work very well together and they make each other better.”

Crowthers (5-11, 165) has run for 656 yards on 138 trips. He collected 118 yards and scored twice in the victory over Zanesville.

Defensively, the Quakers employ a base 4-4.

Seniors Colton Meeks (5-10, 250) and Nick Henning (6-0, 205) are standouts along the defensive line Senior Garrett Strand (6-0, 205) and sophomore Austin Kohl (6-0, 180) are two of the four starting linebackers. They also both see duty at fullback on offense.

“They mix their coverages up,” Saccoccia said. “They don’t have many kids going both ways so they are fresh.

“They get the ball well. Defensively, New Philly is just a gap sound team.”

Big Red, which is the Division IV, Region 13 computer poll leader, enters Friday’s game fresh off a 37-6 thumping of Youngstown Ursuline.

In that victory, the Steubenville defense logged another quality performance, holding the Irish to 69 total yards (67 rushing and just two passing). For the season, Big Red’s “D” has allowed 388 rushing yards and 636 through the air. Opponents are averaging 12 points per game.

“Our defense has been playing very well,” Saccoccia said. “Obviously, we need to continue that come Friday. Our defensive coaches do a great job of getting our players ready.”

“We need to keep playing fast and physical on defense and eliminate any type of mistakes. We don’t want to allow them any more yardage than they earn.”

Offensively, Big Red is averaging 442 yards per game (281 on the ground and 161 via the air). Steubenville has a scoring average of 37 points per outing.

Senior quarterback Javon Davis has thrown for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s completing 67 percent of his passes. Senior Johnny Agresta has 22 catches to pace Big Red while fellow senior Gino Pierro has 21.

Jacob Bernard, the hard-running senior tailback, has compiled 569 rushing yards since returning to the lineup in Week 3. He has scored nine touchdowns. Jonathon Blackmon, also a senior, is second in rushing with 317 yards. He averages 9.9 yards a carry.

Saccoccia said the keys for Friday night are “the same keys we focus on every week.”

“We can’t do things to stop ourselves,” he said. “New Philadelphia is good enough without us helping them. We have to continue to balance the offense up. At the same time, we have to eliminate penalties, especially stupid penalties.

“Not all penalties are dumb ones, sometimes things just happen. But we need to eliminate holding penalties. We also have to protect the ball. I think the keys are the same for both teams, protect the ball and eliminate penalties.”

Friday’s game actually will be the 10th all-time meeting between Steubenville and New Philly. The Quakers hold a 5-3-1 lead. Big Red won the last contest 13-6 back in 1924. The first game was played in 1908.

When discussing the trip to Harding Stadium, Dennison said “that’s a great challenge for us to go against a program of their character and caliber.

“We’re excited for the challenge and our kids are excited to get this opportunity-so we’ll get ready like we always do and go after it. This is why you play games like this-to test yourself against the best.”