James Wood football coach Ryan Morgan has noticed a trend over the years in the Class 4 Northwestern District.
Even on the rare season when Kettle Run has struggled, the Cougars, under Charlie Porterfield, always have proven to be a handful, especially as the season has worn on.
And Morgan sees that familiar pattern just four games into this season as his unbeaten Colonels (3-0, 1-0 district) travel to the defending district champions (3-1, 0-0) tonight for a key league clash.
“Kettle Run is getting better as the season progresses which they’ve seemed to do over the years,” Morgan said on Wednesday afternoon. “… They have a got a good coaching staff over there. They’ll probably be the best they’ve been all year this coming Friday.”
The two teams enter this contest having recently faced the same opponent and the scores were nearly identical. Kettle Run beat Brentsville 35-14 two weeks ago, while James Wood topped the Tigers 37-15 last week. The Cougars dropped their opener 28-25 to Heritage (4-0), which knocked off defending Region 4C champion Tuscarora 32-27 last week.
Morgan said his defense will face a huge challenge against the Kettle Run offensive line.
“I don’t know where they find all of the big guys they have there,” he said. “It seems like they have a steady stream of giant offensive linemen. If you have size, that’s an impediment for our team. Even big guys who can’t move, you’ve got to run around them. They’ve got some big guys who can move.
“Their offensive line has small splits between the linemen, so they don’t really leave a lot of room for you to be able to shoot, blitz or slant through gaps. They get tight in there and use their size to wear down a defense and create some holes.”
While the Cougars lost standout quarterback Elijah Chumley to graduation, they still have experience at quarterback. Beau Lang, a transfer from Brentsville, leads the offense that is ripe with skill position returnees. Jordan Tapscott, who caught six passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-21 win over Riverside last week, and Jacob Robinson are excellent receivers. Running backs Peyton Mehaffey, who rushed for 139 yards against Riverside, and Andrew Strickland also returned.
“Usually they’re good up front and in the box,” Morgan said. “Now they’ve got some guys on the edge, so they are going to be tough.”
Coming off the Brentsville win, Morgan said he and his staff have been focused this week on curbing the penalties that bedeviled the Colonels in that contest.
“One of the things I’ve been preaching about to the kids this week is the penalties we had last week,” he said. “We had 10 penalties for 85 yards, including three 15-yarders. I told the kids that we go entire seasons without an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and we had two in the last game alone. We have to eliminate those. We are lengthening opponents’ drives.”
James Wood has certainly been driving the ball well and a big key has been the play of quarterback Jared Neal. Having not played since his eighth grade season, the junior has completed 30 of 53 passes for 493 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception. He is making the most of weapons Jaden Ashby (10 catches, 4 TDs) and Ryan King (14 catches, 2 TDs).
Morgan said Neal has been a “pleasant surprise” so far this season. “We knew he could throw and manage the team,” Morgan said. “He’s a really smart kid both in the classroom and on the field. … I think he improved last week, making some throws under duress. Overall, he has handled the team real well and he’s getting the ball where it needs to go.”
The Colonels have been a nearly perfectly balanced team on offense. Led by Wes Brondos’ 450 yards, they are averaging 173 yards per game on the ground as well as 164 through the air.
James Wood has proven resilient. Going back to their two wins in the spring, the Colonels have trailed in four of their last five games, but have won each of them.
Morgan doesn’t want to see his team fall behind against the Cougars.
“I hope we can be a little more focused from the get-go,” he said. “If Kettle Run gets out ahead, Kettle Run is going to be a tough team to come back on because they are well-coached and they are physical. We need to play a better game for the first through fourth quarters and not picking two quarters to play well.”
That consistency is a big part of what he believes his team must have to emerge with a victory this evening.
“That’s the biggest thing we’ve been looking for all season — playing a complete game,” Morgan said. “Some quarters, it’s the offense playing well. Some quarters, it’s the defense playing well. Sometimes, it’s the special teams playing well. But also sometimes, each of those phases takes a quarter or two off.
“We have to match their physicality as well,” he added. “They’re big up front on offense and defense. Those tight splits are going to make it difficult. We’ve got to man-up up front and be physical.”