Bragging rights in Hilliard for 2017 will be on the line Friday, Sept. 15, when the Bradley High School football team visits Darby for the opening of OCC-Cardinal Division play.
The Jaguars improved to 3-0 by beating Davidson 28-10 on Sept. 8 and are looking to go 2-0 against their Hilliard rivals for the second consecutive season.
The Panthers defeated Davidson 9-6 in overtime on Sept. 1 and then topped Westerville South 23-18 on Sept. 8 to improve to 2-1.
“Bradley is very good in all three phases of the game,” said Darby coach John Santagata, whose team is 3-2 all-time against Bradley but has lost the past two matchups. “They put up 28 points and over 300 yards of offense against Davidson, and we struggled to just get first downs (against Davidson).”
Darby managed just four first downs and 77 total yards against Davidson.
“This will be our third game in a row going against a run-oriented offense,” said Bradley coach Mike LoParo, whose team beat the Panthers 41-20 last season. “Darby and Davidson are pretty much mirror images of one another in the sense that they want to rely on their strength and physical play on both sides of the football. Both are system oriented. They run at you on offense and hit you in the mouth on defense.
“The one difference between Davidson and Darby is that Darby likes to get to the edge a bit more than Davidson.”
While the Panthers employ an option attack and look to chew the clock on offense, the Jaguars feature a quick-strike spread offense that possesses three of the area’s top receivers.
Bradley, which is averaging 41.7 points per game, is led by quarterback Josh Stewart, receivers Daevon Anderson, Kory Taylor and Trey Warner and running backs Grant Buehl and Jack Richards. They operate behind a line that returned four starters, including Obi Igwe and Jared Rolan.
Stewart, a Worthington Kilbourne transfer, is 45-for-68 passing for 564 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Taylor has 15 receptions for 238 yards and four touchdowns, Warner has 12 catches for 207 yards and two scores and Anderson has nine catches for 256 yards and a touchdown.
Buehl leads the Jaguars’ ground game with 195 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries, followed by Richards (30 carries, 177 yards, 5 TDs) and Stewart (29 carries, 150 yards, 3 TDs).
“(Bradley has) a ton of athleticism on offense and their level of execution is very high,” Santagata said. “They have three vertical threats with a mobile quarterback who can run it and throws it well short and long. They also have balance. They’re similar to Olentangy and we struggled against (the Braves) in the opener.”
The Panthers, who lost to Olentangy 45-24 on Aug. 25, are allowing 23 points per game. Their defense has been led by linebackers Tommy Clark, Nick Wile and Grant Hollinger, linemen Donta Ashcraft and Bobbie Lewis and defensive backs Taj Long, Jaden Jones and Hayden Vroom.
Clark and Wile both have 24 tackles, including three for loss, and a fumble recovery. Hollinger and Long both have 23 tackles and Lewis has 22 tackles, including three for loss, and a forced fumble. Ashcraft has 21 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and a sack, while Jones and Vroom both have 15 tackles and an interception.
Darby does not have a rusher who has accumulated 100 yards on the ground this season. Hollinger and Clint Barnett both have 75 yards on 13 and 15 carries, respectively. Quarterback Henry Sopko has rushed for 57 yards on 15 carries and has completed one of two pass attempts for 35 yards.
“We’ll load the box on them and dare them to pass it, just like we did against Davidson,” LoParo said. “But (Davidson) accepted the challenge and threw a touchdown pass against us, so we had to back off a touch. But believe me, if we could put 12 in the box, Darby and Davidson would be the teams we would do that against.”
“They know what we want to do and we know what they want to do,” Santagata said. “There are no secrets. It’s just a matter of who executes best and makes the fewest mistakes. It could be one turnover, one penalty, one big play that determines the outcome.”
In addition to determining community bragging rights and being an important league game, the contest could have postseason implications.
Last season, Bradley went on to reach the Division I playoffs after beating Darby and Davidson, while the Panthers missed the postseason after four consecutive playoff appearances.
“This is a big rivalry, a big league game and likely will be a major influence on reaching the playoffs,” LoParo said. “But I don’t think we have to play for those reasons. Just the Hilliard versus Hilliard angle is enough to get our guys up for this one.”