Aside from surrendering a touchdown on an opening kickoff, the worse thing that a football team can ask for is having the opposing team score on the very first play from scrimmage. That's exactly what happened to Warren G. Harding when Boardman quarterback Zach Ryan dropped back and found sophomore Terrance Thomas wide open for a 41-yard touchdown pass a mere 13 seconds into the game. However, rather than getting too rattled, the Raiders responded with 28 unanswered points to end the half. In addition to some great play on defense, it was the running game that powered the spurt. With the Spartans expecting junior Elijah Taylor to continue his season-long air show, junior tandem Emari Burgess and Elizah Smith teamed up to take advantage of the spread out defense and power the ground game.
Prior to Friday, Burgess entered the contest with 20 carries for 106 yards and one touchdown for his career. He nearly doubled all of those totals on Friday night as he finished with 16 carries for 88 yards and one touchdown, which was a three-yard score that got the Raiders on the board with 7:01 remaining in the first quarter. 17 of Taylor's 165 passing yards came on his lone touchdown pass to senior Ty Artis, who is one pace to having one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in Harding history as he now has 18 catches for 526 yards (29.2 yards per catch) and 6 touchdowns. In fact, he made a clutch 41-yard catch in the third quarter that would make Randy Moss get out of his seat. That set up the first of two touchdown runs for fellow senior Marcus Brown, who also ran in the game winner in double overtime from three yards out.
Smith's 12 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns was highlighted by his 38-yard score, his longest run of the season thus far, in the middle of the second quarter. Brown's game-clinching touchdown run was proceded by a pair of sacks by juniors Jabari Felton and Emarion Perkins in the top half of the second overtime, which pushed Boardman out of field goal range and forced them to go for it on fourth down and long from the 31-yard line. After an incomplete pass turned the ball over on downs, Brown covered 20 yards on 5 runs to seal the 44-38 victory as the Raiders held off a furious rally by the Spartans. Harding will need to bottle up that toughness to face a familiar foe that is literally a factory of success.
Since the birth of its football program in 1956 up until now, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney has has won 72.8% of the football games that they've played, which currently ranks fifth in OHSAA history. Since the debut of the OHSAA's playoff system in 1972, the Cardinals have won eight state championships (1973, 1980, 1982, 1987, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011) and if you're simply thinking that Mooney as the Division IV school that it is today, you should note that their first one in 1973 was a 14-3 victory over Warren Western Reserve in the Class AAA state championship game, which is the equivalent to today's Division I state title game. Even as Youngstown's population has shrunk has dropped Mooney's enrollment over the years, the Cardinals continued to schedule football games against some of Ohio's best programs. As a result, their level of play remained the same and they have won at least one state title in every division that they've played in.
In 2004, current head coach P.J. Fecko broke the Cardinals' then 17-year drought of winning the state crown with a 28-6 in the Division IV title game over small school powerhouse Versailles, a six-time state champion who had previously won Division IV in 2003. Since then, the Cardinals have added three more state titles and arguments were made that their teams in 2006 and 2009 were the best in Ohio for any division. Their 2006 squad included former NFL defensive tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and current New England Patriot John Simon, who is now in the seventh year of his NFL career. 2010 alum Braylon Heard, who was a Mr. Ohio candidate during the Cardinals run in 2009 and also has some very memorable runs against Harding, spent some time with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015.
As for right now, Mooney enters week 8 with a record of 4-3. They took big early season road losses to state powerhouses Akron Hoban (49-0) and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (42-7) while recently dropping a 20-14 heart breaker in double-overtime to Louisville this past Friday. In week 5, they sealed a 28-27 overtime victory over Boardman when they stopped an early two-point conversion attempt, which could explain why the Spartans opted to kick the extra point instead of going for the win late in the fourth quarter against Harding the other night. In any case, the Cardinals are always battle tested.
When you're an elite program that plays consistently plays against other elite programs, there's going to be years where you pay your dues. Even after their big losses this season, Mooney still has all-time records of 21-6 against St. Vincent-St. Mary and 2-3 against Hoban. However, after Mooney pounded Hoban 40-13 in 2006 and 34-0 in 2007, the two didn't play again until Hoban's program took off this decade, which resulted in their three wins. That's great for Hoban now, but what separates Mooney from them and other programs is that through the good and the bad, they'll schedule anybody. That's why they're a tough program that breeds tough kids and they don't run from anybody. This Saturday, the Raiders will need to contain the athleticism of running back Zy'ere Rogers. He sets the tone well and takes attention off of highly efficient quarterback Patrick Guerrier. Some of his favorite targets include Rogers, A.J. Pecchia, Walter Sweeney, and Michael Pastella.
Perkins (17.5 tackles for a loss) and Felton (12.5 tackles for a loss) will look to continue to lead the defensive attack for Harding as they prepare to face a Mooney program who is notorious for running the ball. Jordan Brantley (2), Ty Artis, Jamel Anderson, Chester Adams, and Marcus Wilkins have all recorded interceptions for the Raiders this season, so their ability to contain Guerrier, especially on the play action, will be vital towards their chances of securing a win. Harding got off to hot starts in both of the last two weeks before late rallies made both of those contests closer than they could have been. One resulted in a loss while this past week resulted in a win, so hopefully for them, that experience will help them in Youngstown as they work towards securing a spot in the Division II-Region 5 playoffs. While the odds are strongly in their favor if they win out, it'd still likely take a while for everything to develop to make it official. The first step would be to knock off a Mooney program that is 17-11 against them all time. Beating the Cardinals has never been easy for anybody, but it will be necessary if Harding wants to continue their growth as they fight for a postseason spot.
LEEEEEEEEEEET'S GOOOOOOOOO RAIDEEEEEEEEEEEEERS!!!