The New Albany High School football team's potent rushing attack has garnered much attention this season.
But just as importantly, its defense has made key, if not game-changing, plays all year to keep the undefeated Eagles in control of their OCC-Capital Division and playoff destinies with three games left in the regular season.
That was evident in New Albany's 38-21 win at Olentangy on Oct. 11 in a crucial league contest between undefeated teams. Senior linebacker Nick Clemons made two key tackles on fourth-down plays, senior linebacker Hayden Hatten forced a fumble that senior defensive back O.B. Oppong returned 80 yards for a touchdown late in the first half and senior safety Joe Siegenthaler twice intercepted Braves quarterback Deeb Haber.
"We have to find out if these seniors are seniors. It'd be fun if they were really juniors and they could come back for another year," coach Pat Samanich said. "But it starts with our linebackers, Nick Clemons and Hayden Hatten. They are our senior leaders and Joe is the centerfielder. He gets the coverages in. And Tyrell Howard, our senior corner, you don't hear about him much because he's covering his guy nice and tight so (the opponent) isn't throwing to him. Jalen Ward, our other junior corner, really played well. But Hayden Hatten and Nick Clemons ... the linebackers are just a solid key to our defense. As they go, we go."
New Albany improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the OCC-Capital with its win over Olentangy, which fell to 6-1 and 3-1. The Eagles, who travel to winless Big Walnut on Friday, Oct. 18, for another league game, limited Olentangy to one touchdown before pulling their starters. The Braves scored 14 points in the final 3 minutes, 15 seconds against New Albany's second-team defense.
"We just had a good scheme going," Clemons said of the defense's five-linebacker set. "Everybody flies to the ball. They (Olentangy) like to run screens a lot and I think we stopped that pretty well. They busted a couple, but we adjusted at halftime and we took it to them (in the second half)."
The game was scoreless for the first 16 minutes before senior fullback Trey Quillin scored on a 6-yard run to give New Albany a 7-0 lead. Olentangy drove to the Eagles' 18-yard line on its next possession, but Hatten forced a fumble from Braves fullback Jonah Gutentag and Oppong ran the other way untouched for a 14-0 advantage.
"At the beginning, it was a game of defenses. It was all about who would make a mistake first and who wouldn't," said Oppong, who later added touchdown runs of 60 and 55 yards on his only two carries of the game.
New Albany was ranked second in the Division II state poll last week but stood to be No. 1 this week, as top-ranked Massillon Washington lost to Austintown-Fitch 30-27 and third-ranked Cincinnati Winton Woods fell to Loveland 7-6 last week.
The Eagles' win gave them a leg up in what amounts to a three-week, round-robin tournament that will determine the OCC-Capital championship. Worthington Kilbourne, which improved to 4-0 in the league with a 49-16 win over Franklin Heights on Oct. 11, plays host to Olentangy on Friday, Oct. 18, before visiting New Albany on Oct. 25.
Big Walnut had its best offensive performance of the season but also allowed a season-high in points Oct. 11 in a 58-35 loss at Mount Vernon. The loss dropped the Golden Eagles to 0-7 overall and 0-4 in the OCC-Capital.
Against Mount Vernon, senior running back Alec Eisniccher ran for touchdowns of 23 and 1 yards and junior running back Blake Marioth added rushing touchdowns of 1 and 4 yards in the second half. Big Walnut allowed 396 yards on the ground.
Samanich knows it would be a mistake for his players to overlook the Golden Eagles.
"I don't care what their record is. Big Walnut is Big Walnut," he said. "They'll be tough kids and ready to hit. We'll have to get iced up and ready to rock and roll."