Last year’s season-ending duel between Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill was called “one for the ages.”
Again the Hilltoppers find themselves hurtling toward Dobyns-Bennett with a conference championship at stake.
Science Hill coach Stacy Carter wouldn’t mind seeing another one for the ages unfold at J. Fred Johnson Stadium Friday night.
Especially so if it differs from last year’s game in one tiny detail.
“The setting we had last year was the best setting I’d ever been part of. The end result ... we didn’t like that, but the experience was unbelievable,” said Carter, whose squad lost 37-34.
“We want the same experience, but come away with a win.”
The Hilltoppers (7-2, 5-0) have been unsuccessfully attempting to beat the Indians for 18 seasons. The tradition-conscious Tribe (6-3, 5-0) can be counted on to pull out all stops to keep the winning streak alive.
Science Hill boasts the Big 7 Conference’s most productive offense, averaging 426.2 yards per game. Dobyns-Bennett has the league’s stingiest defense, holding opponents to an average of 243.3 yards per game.
“This is the kind of game that Columbus loaded those three boats to come over here and see,” quipped D-B coach Graham Clark. “It’s been the kind of week that most of my calories come from creamer.”
The Indians used last week’s open date to heal up and work on the fundamentals. The staff might’ve even used the extra time analyzing one or two Hilltopper defenses, Clark suggested.
“It’s a big game. It’s a fun game. It’s a rivalry between two communities,” Clark said. “And Science Hill is a very talented football team.”
That fact was glaringly obvious to Tribe staff and players who observed Science Hill’s 49-20 win over Daniel Boone last week.
Quarterback Malik McGue was at 100 percent for the first time since injuring his ankle in the ’Toppers’ 45-0 loss to Brentwood Academy in late September. He passed for 219 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 88 yards and two scores.
“McGue has eluded more people than Jessee James,” Clark said.
“He scrambles around and the receivers keep running routes. You’ve got to do a good job staying on them while he scrambles or the defensive backs eventually lose their guy,” he said.
“He’s a very talented runner who makes things happen.”
The D-B coach is equally concerned about the return of Gad Nagba to the Hilltoppers defensive lineup. A superb all-around contributor, the fierce linebacker with the fierce-sounding name is Science Hill’s best defensive player. He wasn’t quite 100 percent last week. He is now.
“McGue is healthy. Nagba is healthy. And that’s good,” Clark said. “You want everybody healthy. Nobody wants to have excuses this time of year.”
In terms of pure athleticism, McGue and Nagba somewhat mirror Malik Foreman and DeVaun Swafford, two Tribe veterans of last year’s thriller win who are now suiting up for Butch Jones in Knoxville.
Dobyns-Bennett running back Zach Casey, who has had his own nicks and dings to contend with, is a vital component of the Indians’ attack.
While D-B is definitely stronger with him than without him, Casey is not so much a star as he is the first among equals; a hard-nosed athlete with good size and speed among a squad of similarly constituted teammates.
There may be breakout athleticism germinating in the Tribe’s midst. But hard-working, hard-playing mainstays like Casey, quarterbacks Josh Holt and Skylar East and receiver Caleb Cook are who have gotten the Tribe to this point.
Ditto for D-B’s linemen who not only boast talent but also yeomanlike grit.
“I think they’re very strong up front on both sides of the ball. They find a way to fight and overcome a lot of things. They always seem to find a way to win,” said Carter, who expects the Tribe to try to keep the ball out of the Hilltoppers hands as much as possible.
The Indians have had an extra week to brew up some surprises that haven’t shown up on scouting films. Science Hill may have one or two classified wrinkles of its own.
Despite the prospects for another nailbiter, Carter doesn’t think victory will hinge on clever anomalies.
“I think this game will come down to who executes their base stuff,” said Carter. “I know everybody will probably have a gimmick. But it’s going to come down to what the teams have been executing over the first nine games.”