Warren Harding traveled to Stark County, Ohio to compete against the 8-0 Massillon Tigers, a program that has a rich tradition of excellence dating back to the early days of football. While the outcome was not a victory, the Harding football team played a physical game and competed extremely hard. There were some bright spots that can translate this week versus Austintown Fitch in an attempt to capture a victory to secure a home playoff game at Mollenkopf Stadium in week 11.
The Raiders are sitting at 4-5 on the season, an improvement from a season ago and have a few positives as they head into week 10 versus Fitch. One positive is that the defense managed to hold Massillon's running game to roughly 25-yards in the first half of the contest; this then forced the Tigers to pass the football in which they were extremely successful. Another positive for the Raiders as they reach week 10 is the performance of sophomore receiver LaMarcus Provitt, who caught 5 receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Provitt raced for a 79-yard touchdown to give Harding their first points of the contest in the second quarter on Friday night.
Reminding the football players of their recent success versus Massillon's running game will bode well this week versus Fitch. One of Austintown's goals is to run the football and last year they played bully-ball and just pounded the rock right down the defense of Warren. There will be an emphasis this week to not allow that to occur and have history repeat itself once again this season.
Austintown Fitch is led by fourth-year head coach T.J. Parker who is 29-10 and has multiple playoff victories since taking over for interim head coach Jon Elliot after the 2019 season.
When it comes to Fitch they are currently 5-3 on the season, a down year compared to their 10 win and 2 loss season in 2022. In weeks 7 and 8, Fitch played both Ursuline and Massillon and lost by a combined score of 21-74. Their other loss came in week two versus Central Valley (PA), where they struggled in the fourth quarter and lost the lead and fell 35-36. One thing is for certain, the Falcons are battle tested and are confident after beating the Boardman Spartans 36-0 in week 9.
The Falcons' offense starts with the trifecta - Quarterback Deshawn Vaughn, running back DJ Williams and
wide receiver and return specialist Dan Evans III. Those are the three athletes that make this football team click.
Vaughn, a season ago, went 91-122 for over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns -- this does not include his 400 + yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. He makes things happen both rushing and throwing and is a dual threat and someone who can make positive plays on the offensive side of the football.
Running back DJ Williams is now the bell cow after Jamell James left to graduation. Against Harding in week 10 a season ago, James along with Williams were a one-two punch and gashed the Raiders for over 335 total rushing yards between the two. James had 25 carries for 215 yards, an 8.6 yards per carry average and 5 touchdowns. Williams had his opportunities and made the most of it while rushing on 11 carries for 120 yards. While this is an entirely different season and the Raiders' defensive front played well versus the run against Massillon in week 9, it cannot go unnoticed as Fitch will try to run the ball down the heart of the defense.
Lastly, receiver Dan Evans III is not only an explosive and shifty playmaker on offense, he is also a threat on special teams as well. Evans scored on an 80-yard kickoff return touchdown versus Ursuline and he was the only player to score a touchdown versus Massillon when he caught a short pass and rushed down the sideline on a 57-yard touchdown score.
Vaughn, Williams, and Evans are the keys to the offense and are playmakers when the football is in their hands. It is up to the Harding defense to try to take away either their rushing attack or passing attack and make them one dimensional this week, and good things may begin to happen.
Fitch returned seven starters on defense from 2022 and are having an up and down season with the amount of points they allow on defense. A few big names on the defensive side include cornerbacks Dan Evans and Pittsburgh commit Davion Pritchard who lead the secondary. On the defensive line, Xavier Dahn is a big difference maker and is verbally committed to play Division I football at Ball State University.
Defensively, Fitch runs multiple defensive fronts, their most popular one being a 3-3 but at times they can change to bring another lineman to run a 4-2-5. On the backend, they are extremely confident in their cornerbacks so they play press-man a good amount of the time. They want to disrupt your opposing quarterback with their pass rush and then press their cornerbacks and also bring cornerback pressure through CB blitzes on occasion as well.
When it comes to the linebackers, expect them to blitz a decent amount of times as well. The Will and Mike backers blitz, the cornerbacks blitz, the defensive line will run their stunts, and so much more. Their ultimate goal is to apply as much pressure as they possibly can and it has worked, especially a week ago versus the Boardman Spartans.
If the Harding Raiders can execute on offense and prevent the Falcons from establishing a running game, there is a good shot in this game. The secondary of Harding will have to match up against Evans and company and do a much better job than they did against Massillon's receiving corps. Fitch has the film and are currently creating a gameplan to exploit the secondary of Harding and that can be prevented if the Raiders can get a consistent pass rush and can be more creative on the backend of the defense (secondary).
All in all, a Raiders win at home this Friday night versus Austintown Fitch will most likely secure a home playoff game at Mollenkopf Stadium the following week, a feat that anyone should be proud and excited for.
At a Glance:
Warren Harding Raiders
Head Coach: Steven Arnold
Record: 68-58 (4-5 - 2023)
Years as HC: 12
Record Last Year: 2-8
League: All-American Conference
Defense: 3-4, Multiple
Aug. 18 - Canton McKinley - Loss - 14-33
Aug. 26 - at Akron Buchtel - Win - 20-16
Sept. 1 - Farrell - Loss - 17-24
Sept. 8 - at St. Vincent St. Mary - Loss - 28-42
Sept. 15 - at Ursuline - Loss - 20-56
Sept. 22 - Chaney - Win - 26-7
Sept. 29 - Boardman - Win - 38-20
Oct. 6 - at Cardinal Mooney - Win - 24-21
Oct. 13 - at Massillon - Loss - 14-48
Oct. 20 - Austintown Fitch
Austintown Fitch Falcons
Head Coach: TJ Parker
Years as HC: 4
Record Last Year: 10-2
Defense: 4-2-5, 3-3, 4-2, etc. Multiple
Aug. 18 - at Euclid - Win - 40-6
Aug. 25 - Central Valley (PA) - Loss - 35-36
Sept. 1 - at GlenOak - Win - 35-3
Sept. 8 - St. Ignatius - Win - 24-21
Sept. 15 - Stow-Munroe Falls - Win - 41-0
Sept. 22 - Ursuline - Loss - 14-32
Oct. 6 - Massillon Washington - Loss - 7-42
Oct. 13 - at Boardman - Win - 36-0
Oct. 20 - at Warren G. Harding - TBD
The Raiders will face off against the Austintown Fitch Falcons on Friday, October 20th 7 p.m. at Mollenkopf Stadium.
You can purchase tickets at the gate now.