Since 2014, the Saint Ignatius football team has played a meatgrinder of a schedule in the regular season’s final three games – Archbishop Moeller, St. Xavier, and St. Edward.
The first of those games against Moeller has proved to be a turning point in each of the last four seasons for the Wildcats.
In 2016, the Wildcats dominated the Crusaders to spur a deep playoff run. In 2017, the Football Cats fell flat against Moeller, but used it as a learning experience to drive the team forward.
Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle '69, who earned his 350th win on Saturday, and the Wildcats are guarding against a letdown this year. But a stout 6-1 Moeller team promises to give the Wildcats a fight on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Byers Field.
The Crusaders have a new head coach in Doug Rosfeld, a 1997 Moeller grad, and a new philosophy of mental and physical toughness. Five of Moeller’s seven games this season have been decided by a touchdown or less. Moeller has won four of those five close contests. The Crusaders won the outright Greater Catholic League South title with wins over La Salle, Elder, and St. Xavier.
The Wildcats hold the overall series advantage, 6-2, but Saint Ignatius and Moeller have split the last four regular-season games.
Both teams enter with lengthy winning streaks – five games for Saint Ignatius, four for Moeller. The winner gets to keep its winning streak, and nearly ensures a spot in the playoffs this season.
"It's that time of year where playoff scenarios make sense to look at. They look it as a game that could ensure them a spot," Kyle said. "Maybe it does so for us, I don't know. The winner of it makes out pretty well. And it's a major playoff caliber game. This is like a Regional Final, except we're playing it in the middle of October."
MOELLER OFFENSE vs. SAINT IGNATIUS DEFENSE
Under the direction of Coach Rosfeld, the Crusaders offense uses a wide range of formations and looks to confuse defenses, varying from wishbone to I-formation to shotgun. At the end of the day, however, Moeller has one goal – to pound opponents into submission with the run and keep them guessing with occasional passes.
Moeller heavily favors the run in its offense. Of 370 offensive plays this year, Moeller has run the ball 263 times, a whopping 71.1% of the time. And with the weapons Moeller has at its disposal, it’s no wonder.
Dual-threat quarterback Mitch McKenzie leads the offense. The 6’3, 175-pound signalcaller has a good arm and size for his position. McKenzie has 686 passing yards and 2 touchdowns on the year, along with 3 rushing scores.
Running back Chrystopher Watkins leads the rushing attack. The 6’0, 227-pound back can hit you hard at the line of scrimmage, but also scurry outside. Watkins leads the team with 507 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground. TJ Rotello also assists the run, with 199 yards and 2 touchdowns.
RJ Khayo is the primary receiving threat, with a team-high 352 yards and 1 touchdown. Khayo also has 86 yards and 2 TDs rushing. Other weapons to watch include Max Land, Austin Bradfish, and Tucker Hughes. As a unit, Moeller averages 22.6 points per game.
“They give you a lot to work on you have to spend practice time on," said Coach Kyle. "So far, you haven't seen them throw as much as they have in the past, but when they do, they look good doing it."
The Wildcats’ defense has performed quite well in recent weeks, allowing only 26 points in the last five games, including zero first-half points.
Middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg has made a huge impact. The defensive line has also grown, with Zach McMahan leading the charge and playmakers such as Anthony Gerace emerging to help.
The secondary has been strong all year, allowing just 127.6 passing yards per game. Senior captain Chris Velotta Jr. has led the unit, picking off a pass last week. Playmakers to watch on Saturday include Jett Elad, Danny Scelza, and Mitch Puhalsky.
SAINT IGNATIUS OFFENSE vs. MOELLER DEFENSE
Opposing teams have struggled to score against Moeller’s stout defense this season. No team has mustered more than 21 points in a game vs. Moeller.
The “secret sauce” for Moeller is discipline and a variety of looks.
Moeller switches between a 3 and 4-man front, using aggressive twists and stunts by the defensive line to open space for blitzing linebackers. Moeller’s secondary also plays very smart, focusing on run keys to avoid being fooled by playaction. Moeller trusts the front six to stop the run, allowing the secondary to sit back to defend the pass.
All in all, Moeller’s defense is hard for an opposing quarterback to read. An offensive line must be smart in blocking blitzes to allow time for the QB and running backs to work.
Ryan Mullaney is the linchpin of the defense. The senior defensive end is a veteran – strong, smart at reading keys, and athletic. The 6’2, 228-pound playmaker has 31.5 tackles and 8.5 sacks this year.
Moeller’s other studs on defense include linebackers Joe Toepfer (32.5 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Luke Szabados (31 tackles) and defensive back BJ Hendrix (19 tackles, 2 interceptions).
The Wildcats have gained momentum on offense in recent weeks. Quarterback Patrick Delahunty has found his groove, completing a touchdown pass of 50+ yards in each of the past five games. Delahunty surpassed 1,000 passing yards last week, and completed his 11th scoring strike of the year.
Running backs Jahadge “Bo” Floyd and Jack Welcsh split time in the backfield. Both are effective runners who will play a critical role in establishing the run game vs. Moeller.
Jack Kennedy and Connor Cmiel have emerged as the top targets at wideout, with 4 receiving touchdowns apiece this season. Luke Cooper, Ethan Biacsi, and Nate Conry have all assisted in the passing game, too.
SAINT IGNATIUS SPECIAL TEAMS vs. MOELLER SPECIAL TEAMS
In a close game, special teams can decide a game. Coach Kyle believes that could ring true this week.
The Wildcats are dedicating plenty of practice time to special teams this week to prepare for Moeller. The Crusaders blocked a short field goal vs. St. Xavier and also successfully faked a field goal. Khayo is a speedy returnman and burned the Cats last season. Kicker Kevin Thibodeaux has a strong leg capable of long field goals.
"We made some big mistakes on special teams last year that really hurt us. We can't have that," Kyle said. "Mistakes may go unnoticed sometimes, but they don't against a good team like Moeller. Special teams will be an interesting part of this game. They spend their time on it."
Expect both teams to be well-prepared for a true battle on special teams this week.
NATIONAL ATTENTION: Max Preps wrote that Saint Ignatius vs. Moeller is one of the biggest games in the country this weekend. Read their preview here:
JV UPDATE: The JV Cats earned a 35-8 victory over Cleveland Central Catholic on Monday on Wasmer Field. The Wildcats return to the field on Saturday at 10 a.m. vs. Massillon. SIBN will have coverage of the game.
FRESHMEN UPDATE: The Freshmen Football Cats stand at 6-0, as the team's last game vs. Lorain was cancelled due to the power outage. This week, the Wildcats will head to Massillon to play the Tigers at 10 a.m., hoping to stay undefeated.