Friday night at Wauseon’s Harmon Field will be a defining moment for either the Indians or the Swanton Bulldogs.
It is a true tale of one team that is familiar to success on the gridiron, Wauseon, and Swanton, who still has hopes of winning the NWOAL title outright as they sit at a perfect 7-0 on the season.
However, the Bulldogs are trying to stay on an even keel despite this being one of the biggest games they will play in years.
“I really like the way we approach each week,” said Swanton second-year coach Mike Vicars on his team’s focus. “You can’t tell the difference if it is a big week or we are playing a struggling opponent. They have really matured in this area as a team. We ask them every week to simply give their best effort in practice and in our game that week. We tell them if they do that, win or lose, we will be fine. Just be the best you can be.”
Wauseon is coming off a solid 28-7 win at Liberty Center in week seven. It was an overall team win for the Indians that saw them flex their muscles against a squad that had yet to lose in NWOAL competition.
“It was big for our confidence,” said Wauseon coach Travis Cooper on the victory over the Tigers. “We hadn’t played our best football the previous three weeks so beating a very good LC team was much needed.”
The Indians’ offense was also more efficient against LC than in the past three games, with senior quarterback J.J. Kauffman completing some big pass plays down the field to go along with a team rushing total of 143 yards. Brendan Wilson leads the Indians in rushing on the season, going for 628 yards on 77 attempts, an average of 8.2 yards per carry.
But, as coach Cooper notes, against the Tigers they still had some lingering mistakes that need to be corrected against a tough Swanton team.
“We still need to clean up some of our costly penalties,” he said. “We have reduced the overall number of penalties, but the timing of the penalties we have had have been drive killers. It is going to take our best overall offensive performance of the year to beat Swanton.”
The coach also highlights that the Bulldogs have a talented defense that can pose problems.
“I think we have a good game plan, but there are no glaring weaknesses,” said Cooper. “We cannot afford to turn the football over and get untimely penalties. Their defense scored three touchdowns last week so we need to take care of the football.”
The key for Swanton’s defense will be forgetting about last year’s game in which they were beaten physically by the Indians, along with focusing on fundamentals.
“I think you saw a nice wake up from them last week versus LC,” stated Vicars on Wauseon. “Like us they have had to fight some injuries. That is always a factor, too, but they look at full strength now. They have a nice balance. We will have to be solid in our run scheme, as well as our secondary versus the pass.”
But undoubtedly the more intriguing match-up will be Wauseon’s defense against the Bulldog offense. The Indians are allowing just 11 points per game, while the Swanton offense averages 48 per contest.
It is a Swanton team that is very versatile on that side of the ball, led by senior quarterback Bryce McComb who is a threat to both run and pass. They also have 6’4” junior wide receiver Gunnar Oakes who can be a handful on the outside, as well as senior Robbie Gilsdorf who is a gifted athlete as well.
“That is the thing that makes this Swanton team so dangerous is their ability to throw the football effectively,” admitted Cooper. “They are putting up big offensive numbers so we are going to need our best defensive game of the year.
“Defensively, we need to turn them over and avoid the big play. Corralling McComb at QB is also a must.”
On the other side, the Bulldogs know that it will be a tough task to move the ball against this Wauseon defense. It is a unit that has limited every opponent outside of Delta, their only loss, to under 20 points.
“They are a very physical defense, no weaknesses that I can find. We will just have to do the best we can to move the football,” noted Vicars.
However, the fact that the Bulldogs have a diverse playbook should help them.
“I think we always mix it up. We take what the defense presents us,” added the Swanton coach. “If that is on the ground 90 percent of the time like versus Evergreen, so be it. Or, if we are presented lots of guys on the line then we will throw it. We don’t intend to run at a walled city.”
As for something the Bulldogs must accomplish to stay in line for the outright league championship, they must, “stay in it early,” as Vicars put it.
“We haven’t been here before. Wauseon has plenty of times. We need energy plays to get us going,” he said. “Any time you go up against the defending league champs the margin for error is thin. The toughest thing to do is to knock off the champs. They have that mentality to fight to keep what is theirs. It is an amazing thing.”
Friday night’s result will be a good indication of how the league race will shape up.
Max Householder can be reached at 419-335-2010