BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — When Traverse City Central football coach Tom Passinault looks back at last September's 14-7 loss to rival Traverse City West, one statistic pops out.
Time of possession.
The Titans owned the ball for 34 minutes, the Trojans 14. West ran 24 more plays from scrimmage.
So when the two Big North Conference football unbeatens collide Friday at Thirlby Field, Passinault knows the challenge.
"If you don't stop their power game, you don't get the ball very much," he said. "That was our problem last year. We were OK offensively, we just didn't have the ball."
On four of its six drives, West marched 71, 78, 48 and 68 yards. Two of those drives resulted in touchdowns. Now, the Titans have added a new wrinkle to the attack — quarterback Donny Cizek's passing.
"They're playing outstanding football," Passinault said of the Titans. "We're well aware of the power team that they are, then you watch their quarterback complete 11 straight passes and throw for a couple hundred yards (last week against Cadillac). They've done a good job in the spread. It just makes them all that more difficult to defend. Cizek not only throws the ball well, but he runs the ball well. We're not sure what look they'll give us, but we'll prepare for everything."
The bottom line, according to Central safety Weston deTar, is that the Trojan defense needs to step it up.
"We need to stop their long drives," he said. "Last year they had a lot of long drives on us. We need some three-and-outs, some turnovers."
Central and West enter the showdown with identical 4-1 marks, 3-0 in the league. Both teams suffered heartbreaking last-minute non-conference losses to open the season, but have since rattled off four consecutive wins, making this a marquee matchup. The 4-1 start is Central's best since the split.
"It's a collision of two teams that are playing pretty well right now," Passinault said.
The Trojans lead the Big North in most points scored (200) and fewest allowed (50). The offense is spearheaded by dual-threat quarterback T.J. Schepperly and speedy halfback T.J. Schwannecke.
"The T.J.s are two of our hardest workers," Passinault said. "They get a lot of notoriety, but they're humble kids. They work harder than anyone on the field. When your good players are hard workers that's a great combination because everyone respects them and follows their lead."
The Trojans can also attack with power runners Nate Pupel and Joe Schepperly and strike with the pass to keep defenses honest.
"It's a fun offense to coach for that reason," Passinault said. "We can throw the ball. We can run with speed and power. I don't know the last time Central's scored this many points this early in the season. It's a good indication of where we are. Plus, we have a great kicker (Jacob Gorter) to go along with it."
The Trojans offensive line features senior bookend tackles Tyler Gildersleeve and Mitch Brien. The 6-foot-7, 280-pound Gildersleeve said Friday night's game will come down to basics.
"We have to execute on offense and defense," he said. "On offense, we have to make sure we follow our (blocking) rules."
The senior leadership carries over to defense, too, with tackles David Chauvette and Jordan Lutze and linebackers Pupel and Nick Bonaccini providing the Trojans a solid inside presence up front.
The starting unit did not allow a score in wins over Alpena and Petoskey.
Central is coming off a gut-check 49-21 win at Ogemaw Heights. Central led early 21-0 only to see the Falcons roar back to tie it at the start of the fourth quarter.
"You never want to overlook a team, but I think we may have overlooked Ogemaw a little," deTar said. "But we buckled down (in the fourth quarter) and played like we can. That's what we need to do against West the whole game. If we bring that effort the whole game, we can beat them."
Passinault is hoping for a full 48-minute effort, too.
"I think they (players) felt that they took their foot off the gas at Ogemaw," he said. "To their credit, though, when it was 21-21, they showed character and resiliency in turning it back around, and into a rout. It makes me confident if things get tight this week that our kids won't panic and we'll continue to play well."