History repeats itself, as the old adage goes. The Wildcats sure wouldn’t mind if it did on Saturday.
The Saint Ignatius Wildcats and St. Xavier Bombers enter Saturday’s annual game in similar situations to 2016. The Wildcats enter with a 6-2 record following a big win over Moeller and a playoff spot nearly secured. The Bombers enter with a 4-4 mark looking for a win to clinch a playoff berth.
In 2016, the 7-1 Wildcats defeated the 4-4 Bombers at Ballaban Field, 31-14, springboarding the men of Ohio City to a deep playoff run. Despite the loss, St. Xavier won the next week and captured five straight playoff games to capture the title.
Saturday’s game will be important, with playoff implications for both squads in the 26th meeting of the Jesuit schools. The contest will also mark 20 straight seasons of the annual regular season game.
One extra element of the game is the travel aspect for the Wildcats. Traveling four hours for a game, particularly at the high school level, presents challenges for coaches and players. Planning is very important.
"It's moving the army. There's a lot of itineraries and a lot of little checklists that you have to go through," said Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle '69. "It's so much more than driving to Byers Field and playing a game. Hopefully, the way we do it allows the kids to focus on the game and come out strong out of the gate. As we work all week, we say, 'Its a 2 o'clock football game, whether it's in Cincinnati or Cleveland, it's a football field, let's go.'"
ST. XAVIER OFFENSE vs. SAINT IGNATIUS DEFENSE
As is tradition under head coach Steve Specht, a good friend of Wildcats’ head coach Chuck Kyle ’69, the Bombers run a spread offense. St. Xavier will run its offense exclusively from the shotgun, using 4-5 wide receiver formations.
Quarterback Wyatt Hudepohl leads the Bombers’ attack. The junior anchors an offense that can effectively pass the ball downfield and keep you honest with a solid ground game. Hudepohl has 1,397 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions through the air, and 113 yards and 2 scores on the ground this year.
Hudepohl’s top target is Jared Kreimer. The 6’0, 170-pound athlete can do it all – throw, run jet sweeps, catch passes, and even serves as a rugby-style punter. On the year, Kreimer has 241 yards and 3 touchdowns at QB, 104 rushing yards and a score as a RB, and 486 yards and 4 TDs as a WR.
Chris Payne leads the team in rushing with 367 yards and 5 touchdowns, adding 3 receiving TDs. The Bombers rely on the zone read and run-pass options to gain yards on the ground. Tight end Marshall Lang and wideout Liam Clifford are also players to watch for the Bombers.
"They are well-coached and their technique and discipline is good," Kyle said. "They'll prepare some things for us, that's for sure. Overall, they have a balanced attack, passing and running the ball, they're prepared to do either one."
On defense, the Wildcats will counter with the traditional 3-3 stack. Led by Tommy Eichenberg at middle linebacker, the team will use a variety of blitz packages and coverages to stop the spread.
As Coach Kyle believes, the most important thing in stopping the spread is shutting down the ground game with six defenders in the box.
"Philosophically, how many will you leave in the box? With the spread offense, as you move people out, someone has to move out to cover them," Kyle explained. "Will you be in man coverage, or zone? How many do you need in the box to stop their run? It's a conversation you have every week. If you need 6 to 6.5 – in other words, if you have a nosy safety who has to help out – that dictates what kind of coverage you can do. That's the core of how you defend modern offenses."
SAINT IGNATIUS Offense vs. ST. XAVIER DEFENSE
Just like the Wildcats, St. Xavier employs a 3-3 stack on defense. And similar to the Wildcats’ Linebacker Legion, the Bombers have a great corps of ‘backers that form the soul of the defense.
Linebackers Nathan Arthur and Thomas Kiessling top the team in tackles and flow to the ball well. Ethan Lynch and Noah Taylor also rotate at linebacker for an aggressive defense that likes to blitz five players. The Wildcats’ offensive line worked in practice this week to stop the “tidal wave,” as Coach Kyle called it.
The 3-3 stack offers unique challenges for an offense, particularly in reading the defense after the snap. The quarterback must quickly diagnose the blitz to avoid losing yards.
St. Xavier’s defensive backs also make things difficult for opponents. Defensive back Tucker Hundley has a knack for finding the ball, as the junior is third on the team in tackles and has two interceptions on the year. B.J. Ferguson and Nathan Stockman each have returned an interception for a touchdown, as has Arthur. The Bombers have recovered six fumbles on the year, too.
On offense, quarterback Patrick Delahunty has found his groove. The senior has passed for a touchdown in each of the six wins this season, along with 1,289 yards through the air. His offensive line has improved its pass protection, and Delahunty has the ability to scramble when he needs more time.
Running backs Jahadge “Bo” Floyd and Jack Welcsh have also benefitted from a hard-working offensive line. The duo can pound opponents and open space for the passing game to operate. The two will look to wear down the Bombers this week.
A myriad of options exist for Delahunty in the air, particurly multi-sport athletes Connor Cmiel and Jack Kennedy. Ethan Biacsi, Jake Lang, and Nate Conry are also reliable targets.
SAINT IGNATIUS SPECIAL TEAMS vs. ST. XAVIER SPECIAL TEAMS
Battles between the Wildcats and Bombers often come down to special teams. The Wildcats hope to have the upper hand in this one.
One challenge is St. Xavier’s rugby-style punting, which poses coverage challenges and the possibility of the fake. The Cats will be preparing accordingly.
"They'll overload the blocking and coverage to that one side. It depends on what you're doing, but if he kicks it to that side of the field towards the sidelines, they'll get a few more bodies at the ball. Sometimes, that's giving away a little distance," Kyle said. "A classic punter will have his timing, getting his foot and drop consistent. It's a little harder while you're running at an angle to hit it right. But it helps in coverage, and it's harder to block."
In the kicking game, the Bombers have only made one field goal, while the Wildcats converted four last week, two apiece by Rory McConville and Declan Mangan. Saturday’s forecast calls for 18 mph winds, so field position will be crucial.
FRIENDS OFF THE FIELD, FOES ON THE FIELD
Coach Kyle and Coach Specht are good friends off the field, but legendary foes on it. Specht has a 9-6 advantage over Kyle, but expect Saturday's game to be a close one, and a classic.
"These are two Division I Catholic school teams that have a heritage of football. Playoff-wise, both schools would like to have this game," Kyle said. "We're both sitting in a situation where we need to get wins to secure it. At this time of year, that's motivation.
"Coach Specht and I go back a long ways. Both of us agree – we're good friends – it's always interesting to play each other. The challenge of playing a well-prepared team is good for you. It makes you a better coach and makes you a better team. Last week, Moeller was a good team and we stepped up to that. If you play a high-caliber team and you step up, that's a good thing. We have another opportunity to step up further. All of our players agree, we're not at the point where we're going to back off or plateau. We see we're improving and we want to keep going."