It’s the 10th time Billy Seals has taken his Huntington team against Capital in the C&O Bell rivalry, but from Seals’ perspective, it might as well be the first.
The Cougars look just as dangerous to Seals now as they did back in 2009 when he met them the first time, and that’s what makes Seals uneasy as the Class AAA contenders collide at 7:30 p.m. Friday at University of Charleston Stadium.
“We haven’t been real successful against those guys,’’ said Seals, who has a 3-6 record against the Cougars. “They just have a really good program, and what [coach] Jon Carpenter does there speaks for itself. They present the same problems every year for the teams they play. They play well in space, they have big, physical athletes, a good offensive line, I could just go on and on. I don’t see any weaknesses this year, or over the past 10 years.’’
Unbeaten Huntington (6-0) enters the game tied for third in the AAA ratings, with the Cougars (5-1) lurking in fifth following their lone loss two weeks ago to Spring Valley (7-0), another Mountain State Athletic Conference unbeaten team.
The Highlanders play again Friday without leading rusher Ty Wilcoxon, a senior who suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago at South Charleston. In his absence, juniors Diallo Mitchell and Malik Johnson have shared the duty of main ball-carrier, with Mitchell gaining 192 yards with one touchdown the past two games and Johnson adding 185 yards on the ground.
“The other two guys have done a really nice job,’’ Seals said, “and they all bring something different to the table. Ty is big, physical and fast, Diallo — and I’m not comparing him to [2017 all-stater] Jadon Hayes — but he reminds me of Hayes with how quick he is. And Malik is a bruiser; he gets 4, 5 yards a carry at 220 pounds.’’
Wilcoxon, who was the No. 2 rusher in the MSAC when he was injured, might not return until the Nov. 2 date with Spring Valley, so Seals has to make sure he doesn’t let Mitchell and Johnson experience too much wear and tear, since both also play key roles on defense. Mitchell has returned an interception for a TD in each of his last two games.
“With Ty going down, it put a little more stress on Diallo,’’ Seals said, “as it did with Malik. We have to quit giving them a lot of reps on defense, and that puts a little more stress on us keeping people healthy and making sure we’re effective for 48 minutes of the game.’’
Of course, the underlying secret to the success of the Highlanders ground game is the play of their offensive line, which features a pair of Division I prospects in Darnell Wright and Max Howell. Carpenter finds it amusing his team must line up against Wright and Spring Valley all-stater Doug Nester in successive games.
“That’s what’s crazy,’’ Carpenter said. “As many years as I’ve coached, and two of the best linemen we’ve ever gone against, we play them in consecutive weeks. I haven’t seen too many like that, and that makes it hard. It doesn’t take long to find [Wright] either — he’s so big.’’
Capital’s own offensive and defensive lines have drawn raves all across the MSAC this season, but Carpenter thinks those units could be ever better. He cites multiple missed and shortened practices — first for the delayed installation of new turf at UC Stadium, then for a glut of Wednesday middle school games and Thursday UC games at Laidley Field — for the lack of preparation for his team.
“We’ll be ready,’’ he said, “but it’s frustrating because we’re talented and we think we’ve got a team that comes around maybe two or three times over a 20-year period. Obviously, I don’t think we have them ready yet on offense to do what we’re doing, and I know it sounds like a broken record. But I feel bad because our kids deserve better than that.’’
The Cougars feature a balanced attack led by senior quarterback Kerry Martin Jr. (649 yards passing, six TDs) and senior running back Deshaun James (459 yards, three TDs). Junior Chance Knox tops Capital’s talented receiving corps with 14 catches for 205 yards and three TDs.
Huntington won last year’s game 24-21 on an Isaiah Carpenter field goal as time expired. The winner of the Cougars-Highlanders game gets possession of the large C&O Railroad victory bell.