By Frank Foreman
Regardless of the opponent, Oil City’s plan each week is to shut down the run. That may be easier said than done tonight against Conneaut.
The Oilers (6-4) and the Eagles (7-3) collide tonight in the District 10 Class AAA quarterfinals at Franklin High School at 7 p.m. It’s an intriguing contest between a pair of teams with somewhat opposite approaches.
Oil City knows that Conneaut wants to run the ball. Finding a way to stop or even slow the Eagles ground game down is the issue many teams have faced this year.
Enter Hunter Merritt. The sophomore quarterback enters tonight’s tilt as the second-leading rusher in all of District 10 with 1,792 yards on the ground and 21 touchdowns. Merritt’s athleticism causes fits for many teams, but for Oil City the approach remains the same, no matter who’s carrying the rock.
“Our defensive strategy is to stop the run,” Oil City head coach Matt LaVerde said. “(Merritt) is a good player, but we have to stop the run. That’s what it comes down to. We have to be more physical at the line of scrimmage.”
Oil City’s rushing attack is also impressive, as Kevin Daly has rushed for 1,255 yards and 16 touchdowns. Daly represents one of three major offensive threats that Oil City has, the second of those coming at the quarterback position in Jackson McFall.
McFall, like Merritt, is a sophomore that has a very bright football future ahead of him. The major difference, however, is in McFall’s arm, where the Oilers let the youngster unload in what can be a very impressive passing attack.
Impressive, and successful.
“I hope we can get some pressure on the quarterback,” Conneaut head coach Pat Gould said. “They seem to roll him out a lot, so we want to keep him in the pocket and put pressure on him.”
For LaVerde, McFall’s season has been typical for a younger player: Full of highs and lows.
“Jackson has done a nice job all year for us,” LaVerde said. “He has had a couple of off weeks where he wasn’t throwing crisp. We hope he can clean that up a bit and make the throws that he’s been making all year.”
McFall has thrown 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions, and has tallied 1,424 yards through the air. Naturally, those strong numbers usually mean there is a talented receiver on the roster, and so is the case with Logan Way.
Way has been on the receiving end of 11 of those touchdowns, and is a dynamic player that causes matchup problems for most secondaries.
“Logan has been a big weapon for us for three years,” LaVerde said. “He’s a good athlete, and it’s always in the game plan to get him some good shots, and give him a chance to catch the ball.”
Conneaut has a dynamic player in Elijah Anderton, an important piece to the Eagles’ puzzle. The junior has rushed for 790 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, but injured his ankle last Friday against Meadville. The injury forced Anderton to the sideline for the rest of the game, and his availability tonight still remains a mystery.
“He’s was jogging on (his ankle) Wednesday, but it’s truly a game-time decision for him,” Gould said. “Even if he’s not carrying the ball, he’s always talking to players and offensive linemen, and he does a lot for the team.
“He takes the load off of Hunter, and it would definitely be a big loss if we didn’t have him.”
The key for the Eagles is slowing down the pace of Oil City. When the Oilers are clicking offensively, they are extremely hard to stop, forcing Gould to set reasonable goals heading into tonight’s contest.
“We have to slow them down. We can’t give them cheap touchdowns,” Gould said. “If they get one or two, we understand that. These are two good teams playing, and asking our defense to get a shutout in a playoff game is a bit much.”
Gould understands what a win could do for his program, as a Class AAA playoff victory is a difficult task.
The head coach of Conneaut, a school in its second year of existence, is also well aware that his team is playing really good football, and that his Eagles are very capable of leaving Franklin High School with a win.
“We’re a young school starting something from scratch, and it’s important for us to play well,” Gould said. “It’s important to get a win in the triple-A playoffs. It’s tough enough to get a win in any playoffs, but it would be a great thing for the program to get a win (tonight).”