When the Pickerington Central and Cleveland St. Ignatius high school football teams meet in the Division I state final at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, the Wildcats will be making their 12th appearance in a Division I state final in 24 years.

When the Pickerington Central and Cleveland St. Ignatius high school football teams meet in the Division I state final at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, the Wildcats will be making their 12th appearance in a Division I state final in 24 years.

In his 29th year as coach at St. Ignatius, Chuck Kyle has guided the Wildcats to 10 state championships, with the last coming in 2008.

In 1999, St. Ignatius pounded Pickerington 48-8 in a state semifinal, in what was the Tigers' first state appearance and the last time the squads played each other.

Central will be making only its second state final appearance. The Tigers lost to Piqua 26-7 in the Division II state final in 2006. They lost to Cincinnati Elder 24-10 in a Division I state semifinal in 2008 before beating Cincinnati St. Xavier 14-7 in a state semifinal on Nov. 26 at Welcome Stadium in Dayton to improve to 11-2.

Though Central doesn't measure up to St. Ignatius in terms of history or reputation, senior running back and free safety Billy Eakins said the Tigers won't be intimidated by the Wildcats.

"St. Ignatius has an incredible tradition of success, but that doesn't have anything to do with this game," Eakins said. "We've had a lot of good teams in recent years, too, and our team is really hungry for our first state championship. That's all we're focused on."

Kyle, whose team defeated Toledo Whitmer 17-6 in a state semifinal Nov. 26 to improve to 12-2, mostly agreed with Eakins' sentiments.

"Having been this far before makes a difference in the way you approach the game during the week, but once the game starts, none of (those past experiences) matter anymore," Kyle said. "I don't think either of us were a solid pick to be in this game at the beginning of the season after they started 0-2 and we started (2-1), so I think both of us are equally thrilled to be in it."

One of Central's top priorities is finding a way to re-establish its running game after being held to 98 yards on 36 carries by St. Xavier.

Eakins (932 yards and 13 touchdowns on 137 carries) and Devone Penick (686 yards and 11 touchdowns on 99 carries) are the leading rushers for the Tigers, who are averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

"We definitely need to salvage our ground game," Eakins said. "If our offensive line can control their defensive line, I think our running game will set up our passing game to make big plays."

Because of the size and strength of St. Ignatius' defensive front, Central coach Jay Sharrett said the Tigers will need to get the ball to their playmakers.

Central quarterback Nick Jensen-Clagg is 109-for-184 passing for 1,694 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Tigers' leading receivers are Jake Raymond (38 catches for 658 yards and five touchdowns), Roger Lewis (19 catches for 422 yards and seven scores) and Eakins (19 catches for 274 yards).

"They're big and quick up front, and you notice right away how well they tackle," Sharrett said. "Nick will need to make some throws, and we'll need to get out on the edge and make them chase us when possible."

The Wildcats' defense is coming off perhaps its best performance of the season, as it forced five turnovers and held Whitmer's offense to a season-low 234 yards. Whitmer entered the game averaging 44 points and 383 yards and had outscored its previous 13 opponents by an average score of 45-8.

Against Whitmer, safety Chad Aerni had eight tackles and two interceptions, safety Mike Svetina had five tackles and one fumble recovery, cornerback Tom Fanning had an interception and linebackers Rustom Khouri, Zack Ryan and Jim Sheehan combined to make 27 tackles.

Svetina is a Miami University recruit.

According to Sharrett, the Wildcats' defense is known for shifting into different fronts and blitzing from different positions nearly every play, and Kyle said this game won't be any different.

Kyle's biggest concern is containing Central on punt and kickoff returns to force the Tigers to put together long drives.

The Wildcats are counting on kicker Tim Shenk to put his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks, as Lewis has scored on three of his five kickoff returns and has returned one punt for a touchdown.

"They can run and throw the ball well, so we have to be very disciplined on defense," Kyle said. "They are balanced and diverse, so our defense needs to read, react and then attack their offense."

The Wildcats' offense has had success running the ball behind a powerful offensive line, which is led by 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior tackle Trevor Herak and 6-4, 250-pound tight end Blake Thomas, an Ohio State recruit.

Running back Tim McVey leads the Wildcats with 1,197 yards and 13 touchdowns on 274 carries, while quarterback Eric Williams is 130-for-261 passing for 1,835 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Williams' favorite targets are wide receivers Jake Mooney (49 catches for 935 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Tim McCoy (22 catches for 368 yards and five touchdowns), McVey (26 catches for 207 yards) and Thomas (19 catches for 211 yards and five scores).

"We're at our best when we blend our running and passing games well, and if you look at our stats, we spread the ball around a lot," Kyle said. "Defensively, Pickerington Central is a very good team. They're very aggressive and well-schooled. They attack and try to play on your side of scrimmage. We need to come up with a way to handle their pressure."

Central offensive and defensive lineman Jacoby Boren said the Tigers' defense needs to hold its own at the line of scrimmage, much like it did while limiting St. Xavier to 64 yards rushing on 30 carries.

"They're big up front, and we need to look at their tendencies and be prepared to stop their running game," Boren said. "I'm sure this is going to be a real physical game, just like St. Xavier was."

Sharrett said it's crucial that his defense puts pressure on Williams when he drops back to throw the ball.

The Tigers' defense has forced 21 turnovers, with linebackers Greg Basalyga and Jake Kincaid and cornerback Marcus Milton each accounting for three turnovers.

"They have a good, stout running attack and an intricate passing attack," Sharrett said. "Their offensive linemen don't miss blocks, so it's hard to sack their quarterback. But we need to find ways to at least pressure him to try to force one of their players to make a mistake and then hope that the ball ends up in one of our players' hands."