Usually, a sub-.500 Warren G. Harding football team this late into the season wouldn't intrigue many fans. For this year's squad, that couldn't be any further from the truth. The Raiders are maturing by the day and are now begining to click at the right time. So much so, every week, they're threaten or set a new school record.
Enough can't be said about the play of quarterback Dalys Jett. To date, the junior is 60-of-122 for 1,075 yards with 15 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. With two regular season games left to go along with a very likely berth into the 2021 Region 5 playoffs (will touch on that in a bit), he's going to make a serious push for the single-season school records for passing yards (1,763 by Elijah Taylor in 2019)and touchdown throws (19 by Alex Engram in 2003 & Lynn Bowden in 2016). He already owns the record for touchdown passes in a game as he threw six against Massillon. That same performance fell just nine yards shy of tying the single-game record for passing yards (366 by Elijah Taylor vs. Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2019).
Meanwhile, Jett's favorite targets this season have also had landmark accomplishments. Seniors Dom Foster and Tyirq Ivory are the first wide receiver duo in 31 years to each have at least seven touchdown receptions apiece. In the state championship season of 1990, Thomas "Teco" Powell hauled in 10 touchdown receptions while fellow Harding legend Omar Provitt hauled in seven. However, while those accomplishments were acheieved in their 14-0 season, Foster and Ivory are the first and only duo to achieve it in their first seven games of the season.
Speaking of Provitt, Foster tied him this past Friday against Boardman for second in Harding with the fourteenth touchdown catch of his career when he hauled tip-toed a 19-yard scoring pass from Jett, who added a 52-yard touchdown pass to Ivory with 5:59 to go in the game. It gave Ivory 11 touchdown grabs for his career, which ties him with both Edward Killingsworth Jr. and current Akron Zip Jalen Hooks for fifth all-time. Ivory and Foster both enter week 8 with 7 touchdown catches in 2021, which is only four shy of tying the school record of 11 that the single-season record that the now-Super Bowl XLVI legend Mario Manningham had as a junior in 2003. His record of 821 receiving yards in 2004 is also on "danger watch" as as Ivory and Foster currently have 509 and 419, respectively.
With all of the above being said, Harding's offense isn't their only aspect of the game that's responsible for their turnaround. Foster, Kincaid Tyson, Josiah Todd, Trevon Allen, and Tazion Wallace have led a monster effort on the defensive front. Tyson, Todd, and Ivory all recorded sacks against Boardman while Wallace has forced turnovers in back-to-back weeks. Allen has made plays all over the field every week while Foster just limited the Spartans' Cam Thompson, the 2021 Austintown District boys 100 meter dash champion, to just 18 yards and a late touchdown on two catches. They'll all need to stay focused in what could be a potential "trap game" this Saturday.
When you talk about the great football programs in OHSAA history, schools that immediately come to mind are Cleveland St. Ignatius (11 state titles), Maria Stein Marion Local (11 state championships), Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller (nine state titles), the old Massillon teams (24 AP state championships and a record 9 national championships during the poll era; pre-1972), and Harding's next opponent... Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, who currently ranks fourth in Ohio history with eight OHSAA playoff championships. They've won them across four different divisions, which includes their 1973 Class AAA (Division I equivalent) state crown. They've produced some of the greatest teams in Mahoning Valley history and while it's no longer considered a large school, they had some squads in the mid-to-late 2000's that were arguable the absolute best in the entire state.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the 2021 season hasn't been kind to them. Key injuries and internal issues have derailed what could've potentially been a bounce back season for second-year head coach Carl Pelini. Their current record of 1-6 is their worst start to a season in 20 years. A forfeit by Youngstown Ursuline in week 6 of 2001 gave Mooney their only win of that season. However, it didn't take long for the Cardinals to bounce back as they eventually built themselves up for state championships in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011 while finishing as the state runner-up in 2007, a squad that was once ranked seventh in the entire country by the USA Today before late-season injuries doomed their season and allowed them to be upset 28-27 by Coldwater in the Division IV state championship game.
Unlike the 2001 season, Mooney won their first game of this season with their play on the field as on Saturday, they traveled to Tiger Town and took down Howland 23-12. Their last three games are all against traditional powerhouses in Harding, Steubenville, and their "Holy War" rival Youngstown Ursuline. However, if you're familiar with Mooney's tradition, you know that their kids have never had it easy. As mentioned above, it once took them just three years to go from a 1-9 season to a state championship.
History tells us that this slump won't last long, so the Raiders need to continue to remain focused and execute because nobody knows when Mooney's infamous light bulb will start shining again. Senior tailback Zy'ere Rogers was on my preseason "Opponents To Watch" list (can be read here- https://bit.ly/3l7d1J4), but he's one of the players that the aforementioned injuries slowed down for the majority of this season. Yesterday against Howland, he racked up 65 rushing yards and one touchdown. The Cardinals will also look to get big plays from Da'Qua Douglas and Gabe Badea. Defensively, they have a solid set of linebackers that are led by Douglas and Davontae Miller.
In life, it's not always about how you start, but how you finish. That's a lesson that both Harding and Mooney should be quite familiar with by now. The last generation of Mooney players learned that the hard way, but those lessons eventually paid off as they successfully added to their long list of great teams. Harding's job this week is to prevent the Cardinals' growth from continuing in week 8.
Harding is currently ranked eighth in the Division II-Region 5 computer rankings with a rating of 7.4286.