New Albany High School football coach Pat Samanich is wary of any team his Eagles face in the playoffs, but one particular aspect of his opening-round opponent's defense was immediately noticeable.
Whitehall, which plays host to New Albany in a Division II, Region 7 first-round game Friday, Nov. 3, comes into the playoffs off two consecutive games in which it has contained standout running backs.
In a 22-14 win at London on Oct. 27, the Rams allowed K.J. Price 134 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries but held the Red Raiders to 213 total yards.
In a 32-2 rout of Ready seven days earlier, Silver Knights standout Jack Foley gained just 63 yards on 23 carries.
Price and Foley have rushed for 2,363 and 1,472 yards, respectively, in leading their teams to the playoffs.
Considering that New Albany thrives on a running game that averages 186.5 yards per game, such an effort has Samanich's attention.
"We have to finish our blocks and move people off the line," Samanich said. "At heart, they're a 3-4 defense but they're going to put five guys in the box against us with a linebacker and a defensive end. They might even have a safety roll down in coverage. They are going to keep us on our toes."
The fifth-seeded Eagles are 6-4 overall and clinched a share of the OCC-Capital Division championship Oct. 27 with a 27-20 win over Groveport. That same night, Big Walnut lost to Canal Winchester 38-6, and both the Eagles and Golden Eagles finished 4-1 in the league.
New Albany is making its second consecutive trip to the playoffs and ninth overall.
Fourth-seeded Whitehall is 7-3 overall and clinched a share of the MSL-Ohio championship with its win at London. The Rams, who have won five consecutive games, shared the title with Columbus Academy and London as all three teams went 4-1.
New Albany and Whitehall have not met since 2005, the last of three consecutive seasons that both teams were in the MSL-Ohio.
The Rams are in the playoffs for the second consecutive season and the sixth time overall.
"We've come a long way since Week 1 against Watterson (a 41-6 loss)," Whitehall coach Rod Lightfoot said after the win over London. "We've learned a lot about each other and we learned how to play together since the Academy game (a 31-14 loss Sept. 22). It's been a five-game season since the Academy game. Luckily our goals were still intact, to get a piece of the MSL championship and go to Week 11. Our kids responded to what we're doing as a program."
Against London, Rams quarterback Raymell Byrd rushed for 111 yards and scored all three touchdowns. Christian Gordon added 94 yards rushing on eight carries.
Running back Rasheed Muhammad had a 6-yard scoring pass to Byrd to help the Rams tie the game at 7 in the first quarter.
Top defensive players include 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end Tyjuan Childers and linebackers Keon Freeman and Isaiah Oney.
Michiah Burton leads New Albany's running game with 831 yards and 10 touchdowns on 160 carries. Quarterback Jalin Jackson has completed 27 of 47 passes for 459 touchdowns with three touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for 210 yards and four scores on 45 carries.
Burton rushed for 128 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown on 20 carries against Groveport. Jackson's 5-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 43 seconds left gave the Eagles the lead for good.
The New Albany-Whitehall winner will play top-seeded Walnut Ridge or eighth-seeded Canal Winchester in a regional semifinal Nov. 10 at a neutral site to be determined.