MOUNT ORAB, Ohio — Pundits and enthusiasts alike are calling it a classic matchup of David versus Goliath.
Who won that contest again?
The Gallia Academy football team faces its largest challenge of the 2012 campaign Saturday night when it travels to Western Brown High School to face top-seeded Dayton Thurgood Marshall in a Division III, Region 12 semifinal at Kibler Stadium in Brown County.
The fourth-seeded Blue Devils (9-2) have the daunting task of trying to slow down the high-powered Cougars, who finished the year ranked fourth in the final Ohio AP poll while earning the program’s second-straight playoff berth — the only two in school history.
Thurgood Marshall (10-1) has outscored opponents by a whopping 606-95 margin and averages 450-plus yards of offense per game, most of which comes from a lethal Wing-T offense propelled by three running backs with over 900 rushing yards apiece.
The Cougars — winners of five consecutive Dayton City League titles — have scored at least 42 points in 10 of 11 contests this fall, with the lone exception being a 17-13 loss to D-2 Winton Woods during a Week 5 matchup on the road.
TMHS — which officially became a member of the OHSAA in 2007 after replacing the now defunct Colonel White High School — also has three shutouts and three single-digit efforts defensively this year, making them completely legitimate on both sides of the ball.
Scary? Absolutely. Impossible?
Fourth-year GAHS coach Mike Eddy doesn’t think so.
After all, a lot of experts at the beginning of the year didn’t expect the Blue Devils to win the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League, make the playoffs, or even fend off Cincinnati Archbishop McNicholas last weekend at Memorial Field.
In other words, Gallia Academy is once again in its comfort zone — hearing how they have very little chance to succeed.
“On paper, I don’t think anybody disagrees that we are the underdog. And that’s fine, because we’ve been there quite a bit this year,” Eddy said. “When you get into a fist fight, you just keep swinging because you might just end up being the last man standing. We’ve beaten a lot of good football teams this year with our heart, not our talent. With that said, we are a pretty talented group too.”
The Blue Devils’ two losses are by a combined eight points to a pair of playoff qualifiers in Licking Heights (10-1) and Ironton (7-3), and GAHS is also the only team to beat high-powered Athens this fall after posting a 52-34 victory at AHS in the season opener. The third-seeded Bulldogs (10-1) face seventh-seeded Springfield Shawnee (8-3) in the other Region 12 semifinal Saturday night at Hamilton Township High School.
After those three games — and a 1-2 start — the Blue Devils have been perfect since, amassing eight straight wins, their first SEOAL crown since 2004, and the program’s first playoff berth and victory since 2006. GAHS is outscoring opponents by a 386-219 overall margin, which averages out to 35.1 points offensively and 19.9 defensively.
Gallia Academy — which is 6-9 alltime in 10 playoff seasons — has scored 30 or more points in seven of 11 contests this year while allowing more than 21 points defensively just three times. Saturday will also be the fifth time (1-3 previously) that the Blue Devils have played past the opening round of the gridiron postseason.
History may be the one thing working in Gallia Academy’s favor Saturday.
The Cougars lost to Springfield Shawnee 20-13 last year in this same Week 12 semifinal, and TMHS had the ball inside the one when time expired. Colonel White went 0-1 in 2006 — the old school’s only playoff appearance — and Thurgood Marshall has never won a Week 12 contest.
The Purple and Gold went 10-0 in 2009 and had four backs with 1,000 yards rushing each, but the OHSAA made TMHS forfeit three games for the use of an ineligible player — which eliminated them from playoff contention.
This year, however, the Cougars have played like a team on a simple mission — and the goal is earning a trip to Canton Fawcett Stadium in early December.
And the Blue Devils will have to play near-perfect football to prevent that from happening.
“To say the least, it is definitely going to be a tremendous challenge. This is one of the best teams if not the best team in Region 12, and they are a dark-horse to win a Division III state championship,” Eddy said. “Thurgood has some really nice numbers offensively this year, but they also have multiple shutouts. Their defense is not a joke either.
“We play both ways, and they have an offensive unit and a defensive unit. That’s a problem for anyone who plays them, and it is a huge advantage in Division III football to have multiple units. Our kids just need to go out there and do what we’ve done all year long, which is play good, fundamental team football.”
The Cougars — winners of six straight — are averaging over 402 rushing yards and 55 passing yards per game, spearheaded by a triple-headed monster in the backfield. Senior Denzel Norvell (5-7, 185) leads the potent rushing attack with 2,003 yards and 36 touchdowns on 202 carries, an average of 9.9 yards per carry.
Junior Vayante Copeland (6-0, 180) is next with 120 rushes for 1,521 yards and 17 TDs, while classmate Deangelo Worthy (5-8, 175) has 83 carries for 904 yards and 16 TDs. Both Copeland and Worthy are respectively averaging 12.7 and 10.9 yards per carry.
Sophomore quarterback Jamahl Manley (5-10, 208) hasn’t had to do much through the air this season, but when he has — he’s been incredibly accurate. Manley is 29-of-40 passing for 607 yards and four touchdowns this season, completing over 72 percent of his passes without throwing a single interception. Copeland and senior Gerry Green (6-6, 275) each have 10 catches apiece as Manley’s main targets.
Defensively, TMHS will use multiple looks to confuse offenses and apply pressure. The Cougars have recorded 53 sacks, picked off 21 passes, forced 10 fumbles and blocked one punt. Senior linebacker Todd Moreland (5-10, 195) leads the defense with 94 tackles and senior end Brandon Flucas (6-2, 205) has a team-high 14 sacks. Copeland also has a team-best six interceptions.
Eddy acknowledges that his troops will have to dig down a little deeper this weekend than at any point this season, maybe even their lives, but he also notes that this is what you are supposed to be doing if you are playing football this time of year.
“It would have been easy to sit around Sunday feeling sorry for ourselves, saying poor us, we have to play this great football team,” Eddy said. “But the more you think about it, why not us? At this point in the season, somebody has to play the best teams. This provides us a chance to find out just how good we really are.
“We are excited about this opportunity to play a great team, and that’s what you do when you’re in Week 12. We don’t have plans of showing up Saturday night and turning equipment in next week. We’re also one of the last 16 teams left in Division III.”
Eddy is also hoping for another supportive turnout Saturday night, much like it’s been over the years and — particularly — over the last few months in the Old French City.
“Gallipolis has always been a supportive community when it comes to football,” Eddy said. “It’s been exciting the last few weeks to see a football town get really enthused about its football team, and we are definitely enjoying the support right now. We’re going to do our best to keep that excitement going.”
Gallia Academy and Thurgood Marshall will kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday night.