By David Fong
TROY —Matt Burgbacher isn’t going to bother trying to downplay this one.
Typically, the Troy football coach tries to keep things on an even keel, taking things one game at a time and not trying to put too much importance on any one contest (Troy’s rivalry game with Piqua aside, of course). This week as Troy (5-2, 2-0 in the Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division) travels to Sidney (7-0, 2-0), however, Burgbacher isn’t mincing words when it comes to the meaning of this game.
“It’s monumental,” Burgbacher said. “There are huge ramifications. There’s a lot on the line. All kinds of stuff. This is a big game for both teams.”
Sidney — ranked No. 4 in the latest Division II state poll — is having the type of season it hasn’t seen in decades, as the Yellowjackets are off to their first 7-0 start since 1974. Troy and Sidney are the only remaining teams without a North Division loss, meaning the winner will be squarely in the driver’s seat to win a North title. There’s also plenty of computer points available, so the winner should have a tremendous shot at a Division II, Region 8 playoff berth.
“Our No. 1 goal is always to win the GWOC North,” Burgbacher said. “Whoever wins is going to have a one-game advantage with only two games left to play in the season. Both teams are 2-0 and both are the only 2-0 teams left. And while we try not to look at those types of things and too far ahead of ourselves, when you do look at the big picture, the team that wins this game will have a good shot at the playoffs, because there are so many computer points involved.”
It’s an intriguing match-up that features one of the best offenses in the GWOC going up against one of the best defenses in the conference. The Yellowjackets are averaging 499.7 yards per game, making them the top-ranked offense in the 20-team GWOC.
Troy’s defensive, meanwhile, is giving up just 234.0 yards per game, third-best in the GWOC. Troy has the top rushing defense in the GWOC (91.6 yards per game), while Sidney has the No. 2 rushing offense in the conference (328.3 yards per game).
Friday night, something has to give.
Troy’s defense will be charged with trying to contain Sidney’s formidable one-two punch of senior running back Isaiah Bowser and junior quarterback Andre Gordon. Bowser has committed to play at Northwestern University next season, while Gordon has received several Division I offers and is being recruited to play both football and basketball in college.
Through seven games, Bowser already has 223 carries for 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also has 11 catches for 277 yards and three touchdowns. Gordon — who missed two games earlier this season — has completed 49 of 84 passes for 959 yards with 10 touchdowns and just one interception. A dual-threat quarterback, Gordon also has 42 carries for 394 yards and six touchdowns.
Gordon’s favorite target is junior Ratez Roberts, who has 16 catches for 355 yards and four touchdowns.
“Really, they can beat you three ways — and you can’t take away all three,” Burgbacher said. “They can run the ball with Bowser, Gordon can run the ball and Gordon can pass the ball. If you get too concerned with trying to stop one or even two of those things, they can beat you with one of the other two. You’ve got to play solid defense and you’ve got to execute your defense.
“They give you some unique situations. Is Gordon really going to hand it off, or is he going to keep it? This isn’t a situation where you can tell your defense to pin their ears back and rush upfield. If you do, he’s going to tuck the ball and take off upfield. Then they also have one of the best running backs not only in the conference, but in the entire state of Ohio. On defense, you’ve got to be disciplined and you can’t be predictable.”
Offensively, Troy’s offense is averaging 286.6 yards per game and ranked 15th in the GWOC, while Sidney’s defense is giving up 389.4 yards per game. Troy’s offense is led by junior running back Jaydon Culp-Bishop, who has 146 carries for 912 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I think our offense against their defense is probably a match-up that gets overshadowed a little bit,” Burgbacher said. “But we knew we’ve got to be able to move the ball against them. You can’t get comfortable against them, because they can score real fast. They may have a 94-yard touchdown run by Gordon. Or a 71-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Bowser. Or a 58-yard touchdown pass by Gordon to one of his receivers.
“If they get up on you, they are just going to keep pounding it at you with their two main guys. You’ve got to be able to move the ball on them. You’ve got to be able to score points, but you also want to get first downs to keep the ball away from their offense.”
If Troy’s stingy defense can play to a draw with Sidney’s high-octane offense — and vice versa — Burgbacher said the game could be decided by special teams and turnovers.
“This game very well could be decided by special teams,” he said. “We need to play well on special teams. We’ve blocked three punts this year, we’ve got good returns and our coverage teams are playing well. We’ve got to continue to do that this week against Sidney.
“Also, we can’t afford to turn the ball over. We have got to protect the ball. You don’t want to give that offense any more chances than necessary.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong