TRAVERSE CITY — Coming into the season, it was expected that Traverse City West’s massive offensive line would simply be able to plow through defenses on the way to wins.
As things have turned out, it’s the defense that’s stood out in the season’s first two games. West’s opponents — state-ranked Midland and honorable-mention pick Ogemaw Heights — have been able to muster just 24 points total.
“Definitely, we learned we have a good defense,” senior outside linebacker Caleb Breithaupt said. “We definitely thought our strong suit was going to be our offense starting off. We came out and switched it around a bit. Our defense came out and kicked butt and our offense wasn’t going so great, but they’ve made improvements as well. We’re becoming a more well-balanced team.”
So far, so is their record at 1-1. But the Titans hope to tilt that in their favor in Friday’s crosstown rivalry matchup against Traverse City Central in the second annual Patriot Game.
“We’ve challenged ourself with the schedule,” Titans coach Tim Wooer said. “Midland was a great football team. They really made things difficult for us offensively — and we were young. We’ve got a junior quarterback in Jeff Turnquist who is making strides weekly. We hope he continues to grow up again on Friday.”
Central, meanwhile, was also stingy defensively last week, allowing only one touchdown in a 28-7 win over Escanaba.
“They are very similar to Ogemaw Heights in terms of being athletic,” Wooer said. “They’ve got some really good skill kids. They always seem to have good speed over on that side of town. Very athletic group, very fundamentally strong, well-coached. We talked to our kids about all three phases: special teams — obviously (Jake) Gorter is a great kicker. And defensively, we’ve got to be sound. We have to limit the big plays because they’re a big-play team with that type of speed. And then we’ve got to move the ball and create first downs and keep our defense off the field. That’s going to be tough to do. They’ve got a great defense. Two great linebackers in (Josiah) Lopez-Wild and (Joe) Schepperly and the two (defensive) ends are really good football players, too. And they’re surrounded by good football players around those four as well.”
The Titans limited the Falcons to 30 yards of total offense in the first half.
West eased up a bit with a 21-0 lead in the second half, but still ended up surrendering only 241 total yards. And that comes from a Falcons team that averaged nearly 35 points a game last season and returned 17 of 22 starters.
“We knew initially that we had a good defense,” said Geordon Carter, who leads the team with 19 tackles. “But it was good knowing that whatever we needed we could get it done with our defense.”
“A lot of that is attributed to coach (Jason) Morrow,” Breithaupt said. “He’s a great coach. I remember my sophomore year as well. We didn’t have the most talented defense by a long shot, but we definitely got it done. It’s the same thing this year. ... We work hard and we’re smart as well, which really helps us. What we may lack on paper we make up for with our smarts and hard work.”
With Central and Ogemaw boasting similarly skilled offensive threats, shutting down the Falcons gave the Titans some confidence that they’ll be able to slow down the Trojan attack that rung up a 42-28 win last year. Ogemaw had topped West 56-39 the previous season.
“Same thing as Ogemaw: They’ve got a lot of skilled players in the backfield,” Breithaupt said. “Drew Girard, Ethan Campbell, their quarterback is quick and a good passer. We really want to try to contain them, keep them from getting outside and getting those big plays. That’s definitely been our defense’s biggest plus side is holding back those big plays. We had one long touchdown pass against Midland and not too many big runs against Ogemaw. That has helped keep scoring low and giving our offense a chance as well.”
The Titans — who will be without 300-pound left tackle Thiyo Lukusa and list their fastest player, Zach McGuire, as “doubtful” — will approach the game offensively like last week, when three different ball carriers accounted for 17, 19 and 20 carries.
“Outside of McGuire, I don’t know we really have a game-breaker,” Wooer said. “We’ve got good football players, kids that are good, fundamental players who run the ball tough. But I don’t know if we have a kid who is going to get the ball 20 or 25 times a game. From a schematic standpoint, I think that is better. I’d rather have 3-4 kids who can carry the load and the defense doesn’t know who exactly is going to get the ball, versus lining up in the I and giving it the same kid 20 times a year. That’s what our offense is based on, is deception and good offensive line play and play-action passes.”
Grant Balino ended up with 20 carries and 113 yards, Max Ludka gained 84 yards on 17 rushes and Grant Ellison had 70 yards on 19 attempts.
This year’s matchup marks the earliest the rivalry game has been played. After traditionally closing out the regular season with a finale against each other, the two teams played in Week 6 the last two seasons.
“It’s taken a little of the anxiety away from it as well,” Breithaupt said. “The whole time you’d be thinking, ‘Central is coming up.’ At the end of the year, you’ve got to put on a good show and it’s cold. ... It’s definitely taken off some of the pressure, but it’s definitely still a big game, for sure.”
The absence of Lukusa and one other starter that Wooer declined to name, plus McGuire’s status, would spell trouble for many teams. But West thinks it has the backups in line to stop the bleeding.
“One thing about our team is we have great depth,” Carter said. “Whenever we have a guy out, we may have to move a couple people around, but we can always manage.
“Somebody needs to step up (on the line). And they will. (Alec) Coolman came in and Dalton Mitchell came in. Connor (Hayes) moved to guard and we had Dalton sometimes playing center and guard.”
Pittsburgh-bound Hayes (300), Tyler Town (250), Tommy Roush (270) and Jake Cerny (260) are joined by Coolman (252) — who was the starter at left tackle last year before Lukusa came along — on the line.
“Week one, we certainly were not polished,” Wooer said. “But I thought we made huge strides week two against Ogemaw Heights in that area.”
Given that both Traverse City Big North Conference schools stepped it up on defense and allowed only single digits last week, the possibility of a low-scoring affair is definitely there. However, there’s been plenty of times where that has appeared to be the case and didn’t come to fruition.
“Our defense has played really well,” Wooer said. “I really like our kids. ... It’s a guessing game. There’s lots of years where we thought it would be low scoring and it’s 51-42 and you think it’s going to be high scoring and it ends up being a boxing match.”