REYNOLDSBURG – It was Homecoming in the Burg as Westerville South came into town on the night of Friday September 21st, 2018. On a night that saw heavy rain and lightning during and after pregame ceremonies that pushed back kickoff time by just about an hour, Reynoldsburg got off to a slow start on offense before settling in and putting up two touchdowns in the final 1:46 of the first half and the game’s only points at the break.
But thanks to another strong performance by the Reynoldsburg defense, even one of those touchdowns would have been all the Raiders needed to extend their historic start to 2018.
After a punting miscue on special teams for the Wildcats (2-3) resulted in a turnover on downs on their own 26 late in the first half, senior running back Guy Cowans-Wright broke a scoreless tie in favor of the Raiders (5-0) with a 16-yard rush and a 10-yard rushing touchdown on back-to-back plays. Junior quarterback Michael Whatley then found senior receiver Mershawn Rice in the top right corner of the end zone just before halftime for the second of four Raiders touchdowns of the night, and the defense posted its second shutout of the season in a 28-0 victory over Westerville South and Reynoldsburg’s first 5-0 start since 1968.
“We’ve seen something in this group since summer and workouts, so just to see it coming into play is a great feeling,” Rice said after the game of his team’s historic start to the season. “We just want to keep it up and keep getting better. We are 5-0 and teams aren’t going to come out here and give up on the game. They’re not going to give us a win; we have to go take it from them. The biggest thing [going forward] is playing harder, and we know we have another level we can reach.”
After the Raiders defense forced a punt on the game’s opening drive by Westerville South, the Wildcats came up with a crazy interception that bounced off of two players at the Raiders 38, putting the visitors in business with 7:45 remaining in the 1st quarter. However, the Wildcats only advanced seven yards on three plays, and a pass 4th and 3 fell incomplete to give the Raiders the ball back about a minute and a half later. Both the Raiders and Wildcats would go three and out on their next drives, and despite Reynoldsburg advancing to the Wildcats 39 on the drive afterwards, a sack of Whatley on 4th and 6 gave Westerville South the ball back on downs near midfield towards the end of the 1st quarter. The Wildcats would advance to midfield but go three and out as a scoreless 1st quarter came to an end.
The Raiders would go three and out to start the second quarter, and Westerville South would return the resulting punt to the Raiders 35 for good field position to begin their next drive. A holding penalty would push the Wildcats back despite a promising start to their drive, and on 4th and 7 from the Raiders 32, they were forced into a short pass way behind the line of scrimmage, and seniors Jeremiah Burton and Jay Amburgey combined on a tackle at the Raiders 40 to result in the Wildcats’ second turnover on downs with 8:14 left in the second quarter. Aided by a pass interference penalty on Westerville South, the Raiders offense would again march into advance to Wildcats terrtiory, but would come up empty on 4th and long from the Wildcats 34 as Whatley was chased out of bounds and called for intentional grounding. Westerville South would take over on downs and eventually call timeout with 4:08 in the half after getting into Reynoldsburg territory and advancing to the Raiders 30 after a personal foul was called on the Raiders.
But a Reynoldsburg team that had only trailed for a grand total of 55 seconds during the season found a way to keep Westerville South off of the scoreboard.
Senior linebacker Ke’Shun Moorer made a tackle for a 3-yard loss, and fellow seniors Dez Cooper and Emmanuel Crawford each had big quarterback sacks on back-to-back plays to push Westerville South all the way back to their own 41 to a 4th and 39 and punt. The Wildcats would have a bad snap on the ensuing punt, and their punter was called down at the Wildcats 26 before being able to get the punt off with 2:00 left in the half. Two rushes by Cowans-Wright and 14 seconds later, the Raiders found their way into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown, and would take over at midfield with 39.2 left in the half after the Wildcats went three and out.
Whatley would take advantage of what ended up being the first half’s final drive and quickly march the offense down the field, completing three consecutive passes of 11 yards to Princeton Hoskins, 24 yards to Shon Strickland, and a beautiful 15-yard touchdown pass caught next to the pylon in the top right corner of the end zone by Rice over three Wildcats defenders with 10.6 seconds to go in the half gave the Raiders a 14-0 lead at the break.
“When I came off of the line, I saw how many people were flowing, so I went straight for the corner and [Michael Whatley] threw it,” Rice said of what was his fourth touchdown reception of the season. “It was just a perfect pass and I made sure my toes were in.”
Despite their slow start, the Raiders offense ended the first half on a high note as a result of 14 points in the final 1:46, and carried this momentum into the second half.
While a 57-yard touchdown run by Cowans-Wright was called back due to a holding penalty just over a minute into the third quarter, Whatley and the Raiders offense would march down the field averaging 6.5 yards a play on this opening drive of the half and into the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown run by Cocy Goff with 8:52 left in the period to extend their lead to 21-0. After a huge sack by sophomore linebacker Myles Carter essentially negated a 24-yard pass on 3rd and long by Westerville South on their next drive, the Raiders would take over at their own 41 just two and a half minutes later. Senior running back J’Vonte Edwards would continue his remarkable comeback from his season-ending injury in 2017 with a 29-yard rush on the drive to continue to keep the momentum in Reynoldsburg’s favor, and he would lead all Raiders running backs with 102 yards on 15 carries on the night.
The Raiders would ultimately come up empty deep in Wildcats territory again after Whatley threw his second interception of the night and into the end zone with 4:54 left in the 3rd quarter.
“As a quarterback, you always have to have a short-term memory,” Whatley said after the game. “So if you throw a pick, you have to forget about it and work harder the next drive to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Oh, he definitely forgot about it all right.
Westerville South would go nowhere despite coming up with the interception, and even though it was called back by a penalty, junior receiver James Dean would take the ensuing punt to the house to further fire up the team and the packed Homecoming crowd with 3:48 left in the 3rd quarter. The Raiders would milk the clock on the ensuing drive, continue to wear down the Wildcats defense, and despite the turnover on the previous drive and being sacked on 2nd and goal to force 3rd and 18, Whatley responded by throwing a perfect screen pass under pressure to sophomore running back Omari Jones, who ran past his defenders and into the end zone with 24.5 seconds to go in the 3rd quarter to extend the Raiders lead to 28-0.
“It was the perfect time at 3rd and long, and [the Wildcats] were not expecting it,” Whatley said of the touchdown. “I just dropped back, let [the defense] come in, and we just hit [Jones] right over the line and he just made something happen.”
In the 4th quarter, Westerville South would again move the chains and march into Raiders territory with a chance to spoil the Raiders’ shutout hopes. They would make it all the way to the Raiders 4, and senior defensive lineman Jay Amburgey came bursting up the middle on a tackle for a 7-yard loss to force 4th and 10 from the Raiders 11 yard line. Westerville South’s next pass fell incomplete in the end zone to force a turnover on downs with 5:36 to go, and the Raiders would eventually run out the clock to complete their second shutout of the season with 0 points allowed by the defense in 15 of the team’s last 16 quarters of football.
“I just saw the quarterback and the running back at the mesh point; they gave the ball to the running back, so I just went up and got him,” Amburgey said of his red zone tackle. “We’ve definitely been working on our defense, and it’s good that it has been paying off.”
Westerville South was held to 83 total yards of offense (29 rush, 54 pass) to bring Reynoldsburg’s average down to a staggering 117.8 average yards allowed per game along with 5.4 points per game allowed on average through the halfway point of the regular season (five games). And even despite their early offensive struggles on Homecoming night, the Raiders finished with 337 total yards of offense (219 rush, 118 pass) and kept their season average at 386.4 yards of offense per game through five games.
Not only are the Raiders ranked #4 in this week’s AP Division I Ohio High School Football rankings after starting 5-0 for the first time in 50 years (and with two first-place votes by the ranking committee); after outscoring their first five opponents by a combined margin of 173-27; they will go into OCC-Ohio play with the fewest total points allowed (27) of any of AP Top 10 Division I team in the state and the best combined margin of victory (+146) of any of these teams.
“That goes to show how good our defense is,” Whatley said of this stat. “[Raiders head coach Buddy White] always talks about having a championship defense, and that’s what we have.”
But at the end of the day, these numbers still mean very little to this Raiders squad with the second half of the season and OCC-Ohio division play coming up. Arguably one of the toughest divisions in the state, the OCC-Ohio is loaded with talent across the board, and the Raiders will play against all five of these league foes in the second half of the regular season. This includes games against two of these aforementioned teams currently in the AP Top 10, particularly Pickerington North (#8) tonight, who will come to the Burg in Week 6 after dropping its first game of the season 31-28 at home against Dublin Coffman in Week 5 as a miraculous fourth-quarter rally came up just short.
“We’ll look at stats at the end of the year,” White said. “It’s nice and all that, but we know what we have coming down the pike and it kind of keeps you from getting too excited. You can’t beat your chest at this time of year.”
But as they ended the first half of 2018 as the top seed in their playoff region and the 4th-ranked team in the entire state of Ohio, it is safe to say that the Raiders are certainly heading into league play on a high note.
AP Top 10 (9/24/2018):
1. Cincinnati Colerain (9) 5-0 217
2. Mentor (8) 5-0 214
3. Pickerington Central (6) 5-0 208*
4. Reynoldsburg (2) 5-0 133*
5. Canton McKinley 5-0 129
6. Dublin Coffman 5-0 125**
7. Solon (1) 5-0 100
8. Pickerington North 4-1 47*
9. St. Edward 2-2 43
10. Springfield 5-0 42
Others receiving 12 or more points: Hilliard Davidson 38. Miamisburg 30. St. Ignatius 22. Cincinnati Elder 17. Austintown-Fitch 16. Cincinnati Moeller 14. Clayton Northmont 13.
*Three of these Top 10 teams, including Reynoldsburg, are members of the OCC-Ohio division.
**Dublin Coffman is currently ranked one spot behind Reynoldsburg in the unofficial Division I Region 2 playoff rankings (see below).
UNOFFICIAL DIVISION I REGION 2 RANKINGS (as of 9/28/2018):
Below are the official rankings of teams Reynoldsburg’s playoff region, along with the teams’ corresponding records and computer averages compiled by Joe Eitel. The Top 8 teams after the regular season (Week 10) will qualify for the playoffs; Reynoldsburg currently is three games ahead of the 8th-seeded team through Week 5 and is on a quest for its first playoff appearance since 2015 and third in school history (2001, 2015).
1. Reynoldsburg (5-0, 14.8500)*
2. Dublin Coffman (5-0, 12.5500)
3. Delaware Hayes (4-1, 8.2500)
4. Westerville Central (4-1, 8.1500)
5. Gahanna-Lincoln (3-3, 8.0677)*
6. Toledo Whitmer (4-1, 7.6511)
7. Marysville (3-2, 5.6000)
8. Olentangy Liberty (2-3, 5.5000)
9t. Findlay (2-3, 5.4000)
9t. Olentangy Orange (3-2, 5.4000)
*Gahanna-Lincoln and Reynoldsburg are the only two OCC-Ohio division members in this playoff region. All others are in Division I Region 3.
KEY RAIDERS STATS (WEEK 5):
-Total Yards: 337 (118 pass, 229 rush)
-Total Yards Allowed: 83 (54 pass, 29 rush)
-Passing: Michael Whatley (12/21, 118 YDS, 2 TD, 2 INT)
-Rushing: J’Vonte Edwards (15 CAR, 102 YDS); Guy Cowans-Wright (10 CAR, 56 YDS, 1 TD); Courtland Bullard (7 CAR, 52 YDS); Cocy Goff (1 CAR, 2 YDS, 1 TD);
-Receiving: Shon Strickland (3 REC, 43 YDS); Omari Jones (2 REC, 17 YDS, 1 TD); Mershawn Rice (1 REC, 15 YDS, 1 TD)
-Defense: 4 sacks, 12 tackles for loss
-Special Teams: Cocy Goff (4/4 XP)
The Raiders (5-0, 0-0) will look to remain undefeated in their OCC-Ohio division opener against Pickerington North (4-1, 0-0). The Panthers nearly rallied from a 31-14 with under six minutes to go at home against Dublin Coffman in Week 5 and got within 31-28 late. They would have a chance to tie or take the lead on the game’s final drive, but were called for intentional grounding when spiking the ball in Dublin Coffman territory on their final which resulted in time expiring and a 31-28 loss.
Kickoff against the Panthers is at 7:00pm tonight Friday 9/28/2018 at the Livingston Campus of Reynoldsburg High School.
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