The Pickerington High School Central football team hasn't forgotten how it was burned by the deep ball against Pickerington North a year ago.
Although the Panthers have a new look in their passing game, having lost 2013 graduates Mason Olszewski (QB) and Jake Butt (TE/WR), Tigers coach Jay Sharrett isn't overlooking North's ability through the air after his team lost to the Panthers 37-0 in the regular season and 24-0 in the first round of the Division I playoffs last season.
North produced a combined four touchdown passes of at least 29 yards in the two wins while moving to 2-5 all-time against Central.
While both teams enter this year's matchup 2-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division, the Panthers are 5-0 overall and the Tigers are 3-1, with their only loss coming 38-33 in their opener Aug. 30 at Centerville.
"One thing they had last year, and they really have it this year, is a deep, vertical passing game," Sharrett said. "You can play great defense on them two plays in a row and then they'll hit you with a 48-yard pass. They're playing with a high level of confidence considering they're 5-0, and then you mix in their running game and that they've got running backs that complement their passing game. You've just got to decide a way to defend or contain it."
Featuring seniors Tawain Gordon and Rudy Stefanitsis, juniors Eric Johnson and Brad Morris and sophomore Seth Currens in its secondary, Central has faced four run-oriented opponents, including in a 28-17 win over Reynoldsburg on Sept. 27.
The Tigers gave up 134 yards passing to the Raiders but have allowed an average of just 62.5 on the season.
North senior quarterback Zeph Miller, who came off the bench to throw a 32-yard touchdown pass to 2013 graduate Godwin Igwebuike in the regular-season win over Central last season, has completed 55 of 90 passes for 772 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Panthers beat Lancaster 38-6 on Sept. 27, as Miller completed nine of 15 passes for 169 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 108 yards and one score.
Miller has team-best rushing totals of 440 yards and six touchdowns on 47 attempts.
Junior Jaye Williams (WR) is the leader in receptions for the Panthers with 15 catches for 201 yards, but junior Quincy Storey (WR) has proven to have the biggest breakaway ability. Storey, who sat out last season after transferring from Marion-Franklin, has eight catches for 181 yards (22.6 average) and four touchdowns.
"I like (our offense) a lot, although we still have to sharpen it," Miller said. "We have a transfer from Marion-Franklin, Quincy Storey, who can catch the ball. He's been a really good addition to the offense.
"(Central) had a younger group last year and I think they've got more experience and will blitz a lot. We'll try to keep our game consistent and play our game."
One of Central's most experienced players, senior Isaiah Richmond, leads the defense at linebacker and also has been a key running back. He rushed for 78 yards and three touchdowns against Reynoldsburg and has 124 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on the season.
Senior quarterback Colby Simkins has completed 29 of 70 passes for 607 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. He rushed for 128 yards in a 27-12 win over Lancaster on Sept. 20 and for 102 yards against the Raiders.
North senior linebacker Dylan Weigel, the program's all-time leading tackler, has six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Seniors Justin Childers and Tony Welch and junior Romaeo Whitlow each have two interceptions. Whitlow was a part-time starter for Central last season before transferring to North in the offseason.
"I think we've got a lot of momentum going into this game," Johnson said. "Plus we lost to them last year, so we've got to come out with some fire."
"It's a great community game," North coach Tom Phillips said. "It's one of the great settings I've been a part of in 27 years of football. I always love the opportunity to play them."