As was the case last season, there are a considerable amount of playoff points on the line Friday when the New Albany High School football team plays host to Olentangy Orange.
Orange won last year's meeting 37-22, and although it ended up sharing the OCC-Capital Division title with New Albany, only Orange made the playoffs. Orange ended up fourth in the Division II, Region 7 OHSAA computer ratings (21.9 points) while New Albany was 10th (17.35). Both teams were 5-1 in the OCC-Capital Division, but Orange was 8-2 overall and New Albany was 7-3.
A kickoff return for a touchdown and a fumbled punt in the fourth quarter won last year's game for Orange. Since then those two plays have served to fortify New Albany coach Mark Mueller's message to his team.
"When you turn the ball over as many times as we did (against Orange), plus giving up a special teams play, we discuss that stuff on a weekly basis," said Mueller, whose team is 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the OCC-Capital. "Not so much harping on the Orange game and what happened in that game, but giving up special teams plays will hurt you."
The Eagles had a punt blocked last Friday, but still dominated Watkins Memorial 35-8. New Albany has overwhelmed opponents this season with a sound running game and a stout defense. An experienced defense led by linebacker Sylvester Hagan has allowed just 46 points this season.
Orange, which is 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the OCC-Capital, has a defense that shut out Westerville North 35-0 on Sept. 10, but has given up at least 23 points in the other four games. Last Friday Big Walnut kicked a last second field goal to send the Pioneers home with a 23-21 loss.
Jared Leet is playing quarterback for Orange, and he entered the New Albany game last year for injured starter Corey Joe. Leet then started the final three regular-season games. With Leet at quarterback, Orange has gone back to a more traditional wing-T style of offense. The featured skill players are running backs Blake Joe and Brandon Schoen. Blake Joe is also a receiving threat. He had a 24-yard touchdown catch and added another 36 yarder last Friday. In a 41-26 win over Mount Vernon on Sept. 17, Schoen had three touchdown runs and had a 75-yard punt return.
"Their skill players are special kids," Mueller said. "We have to keep them from making big plays. I think they did some things last year to utilize Corey Joe. (This season) it's almost like looking in the mirror."
That means a lot of running and timely passing.
New Albany quarterback Bryant Bednarek (30 of 53 passing, 453 yards) only attempted four passes against Watkins Memorial. He put the ball up a season-high 17 times in New Albany's 13-10 overtime win over DeSales on Sept. 10.
Orange gave up 260 yards on the ground last Friday and they'll be going up against a New Albany offense that averages 362.2 yards per game, including 278 yards rushing per game. Alex Hake (638 yards) and Jordan Gallegos (343 yards) are the featured runners.
With the similarities in offenses, both teams expect to be prepared defensively.
"Our defense was shutting them down (last year), but it's going to be a turnover battle," Hagan said. "We have to play solid on defense and win the turnover battle."
Orange coach Brian Cross expects it to be another hard-hitting game, similar to what the Pioneers faced against Big Walnut.
"The two things you have to do against Big Walnut and New Albany is you have to match their physical play and their intensity," Cross said. "You can't turn the ball over. Against Big Walnut we turned it over four times."
Cross said Orange will focus on trying to "gang-tackle" Hake, a power-runner listed at 6-foot, 210 pounds.
"They have two good backs with Gallegos," Cross said. "And (Bednarek) does a good job of running the offense and not making mistakes."