Nobody plays defense quite like Huntington among Class AAA schools this season.
The unbeaten and top-seeded Highlanders held seven of the 10 teams they met in the football regular season to a single touchdown or less, and led all AAA teams in West Virginia by allowing just 86 points to their 10 regular-season opponents.
But this week’s quarterfinal playoff game against No. 8 George Washington (8-3) raises the question: How will Huntington play defense against GW? The Patriots, after all, remade their offense on the fly following a late-season injury to sophomore quarterback Abe Fenwick.
When the teams square off at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Huntington, will the Highlanders see the pass-happy George Washington attack that accounted for 69% of the team’s offensive yards in the first seven games before Fenwick’s injury? Or will they see the run-heavy approach the Patriots have flashed in their last four games, which has also gained exactly 69% of their scrimmage yards in that span?
“I think you’ve got to be prepared for both,” said Huntington coach Billy Seals. “They’ve done a really nice job. Obviously, they’ve been able to throw the football. They’ve always got a quarterback and a great set of receivers and have done a good job with the passing game on the offensive side of the ball. But the last three, four weeks, they’ve really went back to the ground and pound — counters and misdirection and a lot of movement running the football. They’re a much improved football team.”
Fenwick, who suffered broken bones in the thumb and a finger on his throwing hand on Oct. 22, returned last week in a 21-7 first-round playoff win at Greenbrier East, throwing for 171 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Patriots also ran for 296 yards, led by 115 from freshman Keegan Sack.
So are the Highlander defenders preparing more for the ball whizzing through the air on Friday or tucked into a GW running back’s arms?
“We just kind of do what we do,” Seals said. “That’s always been our philosophy. We make adjustments to our sets and what we’re trying to do. We put faith in our guys on defense. They know how to execute the plan and execute the scheme. We don’t change a whole lot on whoever we’re playing. We do what we do, and our guys adjust.”
Huntington (11-0) downed the Patriots 30-14 in their Mountain State Athletic Conference game on Sept. 17 at GW, bursting out to a 30-0 lead and holding off a late George Washington rally. In that game, the Patriots were 16 of 25 passing for 217 yards and two TDs, but were held to minus-3 yards on 17 running plays.
Seals trusts that his defense will hold its own no matter which offensive path the Patriots take. The Highlanders have navigated a schedule that included run-first teams such as Cabell Midland and Riverside, as well as spread offenses in South Charleston, Capital and, occasionally, Spring Valley. Seals said that diversity in opponents has made his defense better.
“It does,” he said. “It’s going to change from week to week as far as what teams are trying to accomplish on offense. I feel like our players have done a real nice job adapting to what offenses we’re going to see that week.
“One thing I say about this football team is that we’re always looking for ways to get better. That’s why we’ve been successful and why they’ve had the year they’ve had. They’re always looking for ways for improvement.”