REYNOLDSBURG – After missing the playoffs in 2017 in heartbreaking fashion due to a narrow tiebreaker despite a 7-3 regular season record, the Raiders went into the offseason hungry and determined to leave no doubt about their postseason chances in 2018. So far, that seems to be the case three weeks into the season, as the Raiders opened up the year by doing something last done by a Reynoldsburg Football squad before any members of its current team were even born.
Well, maybe except for current members of its coaching staff.
After beginning the 2018 season surviving a late comeback attempt at Upper Arlington and dominating from start to finish at Licking Heights, football finally returned to the Burg on the night of September 7th, 2018. The Raiders (3-0) picked up right where they left off in their home opener against Marion-Franklin (2-1), scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions and never looking back en route to a 36-6 victory over the Red Devils to give Reynoldsburg its first 3-0 start since 1995.
Senior linebacker Dez Cooper stole the show in Week 3, rushing for three touchdowns on the offense in addition to 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss on defense.
“It feels good,” Cooper said of his team’s start to the season. “All of the work we have been putting in during the offseason in December, all of the conditioning, all of the practices, and watching film on teams; we’re all working hard and it’s paying off.”
Through its first three games, the Raiders have only trailed for a grand total of 55 seconds when they were down 7-0 at Upper Arlington late in the first quarter. In that game, Reynoldsburg responded by scoring 17 unanswered points on 57-yard and 53-yard touchdown passes from junior quarterback Michael Whatley to senior wide receiver Mershawn Rice along with a 29-yard field goal by junior kicker Cocy Goff early in the 4th quarter. Upper Arlington would score a touchdown with 4:30 to go in that game and threatened to tie or take the lead on their final drive before being denied with a late red-zone interception by junior cornerback Isaiah Thomas to preserve a 17-14 victory.
That late touchdown by Upper Arlington would be the last points allowed by the Raiders defense through Week 3 of the 2018 season.
In Week 2, Licking Heights came into a highly-anticipated crosstown contest with Reynoldsburg having won 14 of their last 15 home games dating back to 2015. The Raiders had other plans and spoiled the Hornets’ home opener, dominating Licking Heights 44-0 to hand them their biggest margin of defeat at home since 2004 along with their first home shutout since the final week of the 2008 regular season. Seven different Raiders scored touchdowns and Reynoldsburg’s offense piled up 418 total yards, while its defense held Licking Heights to 40 total yards.
And the Raiders showed no signs of slowing down on either side of the ball at home against Marion-Franklin.
After the Raiders offense started its first drive on the Red Devils 45, Whatley would complete two passes to Rice for 35 total yards, and Cooper would find the end zone on a 2-yard rushing touchdown just under five minutes into the game. The defense would force a three and out, and Reynoldsburg’s offense would again take over in Red Devils territory on their next possession. Senior running back J’Vonte Edwards would rip off a 22-yard run to put the Raiders in the red zone, and a beautiful 20-yard touchdown pass by Whatley to junior receiver Shon Strickland in the top corner of the end zone gave Reynoldsburg a quick 14-0 lead with 4:40 left in the opening quarter. Despite the Red Devils advancing deep into Raiders territory on their ensuing drive, Marion-Franklin came up empty on 4th down after Reynoldsburg’s defense forced two deep incomplete passes in a row.
But Marion-Franklin would stun the home crowd early in the 2nd quarter.
With Raiders offense getting back into Red Devils territory, Whatley’s next pass was intercepted and returned 62 yards for a Marion-Franklin touchdown to cut the Raiders’ lead to 14-6 not even a minute into the second quarter. On the Raiders’ next drive, the Red Devils would come up with another interception of Whatley deep at their own 15-yard line just under two minutes later, swinging the momentum in favor of Marion-Franklin despite being down by one score. After the Raiders were called for a penalty on the next play, Reynoldsburg took a timeout with 9:09 left in the 2nd quarter and were determined to get their momentum back.
Whatever was said in that timeout huddle definitely gave the Raiders a boost.
Senior defensive lineman Emmanuel Crawford would combine for a 10-yard sack with Cooper, and senior defensive back Donovan Hines would intercept a Marion-Franklin pass and return it to the Red Devils 36 less than a minute after the timeout. After the offense retook the field, Edwards had another big run of 26 yards right off of the turnover, and Cooper would punch it into the end zone from 4 yards out for his second rushing touchdown of the game to give the Raiders a 21-6 lead with 8:05 left in the 2nd quarter.
Coming off of his touchdown on offense, Cooper went back in on defense and definitely showed he was far from finished. He would burst up the middle for a sack on 3rd and long to force a Red Devils punt, and junior receiver James Dean returned it to the Red Devils 20. Three plays later, junior running back Courtland Bullard extended the Raiders’ lead to 28-6 with 5:23 left in the half on a 1-yard touchdown run, and the score would remain this way at halftime. Both teams would go three and out to open the second half, but two big rushes of 21 yards by senior running back Guy Cowans-Wright and 15-yards by Cooper would put the ball deep into Red Devils territory a few minutes into the 3rd quarter. Cooper would eventually secure his third rushing touchdown of the night on a 10-yard run with 6:09 left in the 3rd quarter, and a successful two-point conversion by Cowans-Wright extended the Raiders’ lead to 36-6 and gave Reynoldsburg a running clock thanks to their 30-point lead in the second half.
“Dez [Cooper] has been very consistent this season,” Raiders head coach Buddy White said after the game of the senior’s performance on both sides of the field. “He is a very good defensive player and is very viable. You can’t fool him; he plays big, plays strong, and I’m glad we gave him some touches in the backfield. I’m very excited about him and I love how he is playing.”
Marion-Franklin eventually threatened to cut into the Raiders’ lead, but ended up coming up empty in the red zone after a 4th-down pass fell incomplete with 6:45 to go. That would be as close as they would get to scoring on offense, and the Raiders got to celebrate its win early in front of its spirited home crowd thanks to the running clock, as the score would stay 36-6 for the remainder of the game.
The Raiders defense extended its streak to eight consecutive quarters without allowing a single point, as Marion-Franklin’s only six points came on the pick-six early in the 2nd quarter. Even more, Reynoldsburg’s defense has now allowed an average of 25.3 rushing yards per game and an average of 119.3 yards per game overall through three games in 2018, and have established themselves as strong contenders as a result.
“One thing I have always said is that we will never be a championship team until we get a championship defense,” White went on to say. “I think we’ve got a championship defense.”
And the state of Ohio has definitely taken notice.
The Raiders were ranked 7th in the first AP Ohio High School Division 1 football poll of the 2018 season. Unofficially, they are also currently the top-ranked team in their new Division 1 playoff region, and a comfortable two games ahead of the 8th-ranked team. The top eight teams in the region after the final week of the regular season would qualify for the playoffs. Reynoldsburg made the playoffs twice in school history (2001 and 2015), but not even the 2001 Raiders team that last won a playoff game started 3-0. That year’s team lost 31-21 at Westerville South in Week 3 to fall to 2-1 before winning six straight games to clinch the home playoff game that it eventually won against Worthington Kilbourne on November 3rd, 2001.
But while the Raiders are off to a strong start in 2018, the season is still young and the Raiders know they have a lot of work to do to ensure that their strong start does not go to waste.
“To tell you the truth, 3-0 basically means that the worst we can do is 3-7,” White said after the game. “So let’s go back to work. We just have to keep on getting better and better, because we know what is coming down the street.”
KEY RAIDERS STATS (WEEK 3):
-Total Yards: 343 (90 pass, 253 rush)
-Total Yards Allowed: 116 (107 pass, 9 rush)
-Passing: Michael Whatley (8/15, 90 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT)
-Rushing: Dez Cooper (7 CAR, 45 YDS, 3 TD); Courtland Bullard (3 CAR, 12 YDS, 1 TD); J’Vonte Edward (7 CAR, 63 YDS)
-Receiving: Shon Strickland (1 REC, 20 YDS, 1 TD); Mershawn Rice (3 REC, 48 YDS)
-Defense: 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 1 interception (Donovan Hines)
-Special Teams: Cocy Goff (4/4 XP, 0/1 FG)
The Raiders (3-0) will look to remain undefeated after a trip to Central Crossing (2-1) in Week 4. The Comets won against their last two opponents, Beechcroft and Grove City, by a combined score of 71-22. Central Crossing’s one loss was a 22-20 defeat in their season opener at Marion-Franklin in Week 1.
Kickoff at the Comets is at 7:00pm on Friday 9/14/2018 at Central Crossing High School.
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