By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
At this point of the season, it is hard to imagine the Rootstown football team as anything but a team designed around its power run game.
With the Rovers’ athletic and strong offensive linemen Brian Youngblood, Kyle Kuharich, Tony Karp, Dominic Siglow and Braden Wright, along with fullback Dominic Duvall, clearing massive running lanes for Dawson Morgan.
And Morgan’s fast and physical downhill running style.
However, much of the preseason began with head coach Chris Knopick and his staff installing a five-wide spread package that they thought would become their offense this season.
Once the staff saw how relentlessly punishing the ground game was during preseason scrimmages, the switch to the Rovers you see today immediately shifted.
Now one of the more unstoppable waves of running has the Rovers at 8-0 following Friday’s commanding 35-7 victory over the host Southeast Pirates. It also improved the Rovers to 3-0 in the Portage Trail Conference and sets up a Week 10 showdown with the Mogadore Wildcats for the league championship.
That game will be played at Rootstown’s Robert C. Dunn Field.
On Friday, the Rovers were coming off a Week 8 bye, which is an unusual circumstance for a high school football team.
There were little signs of rust, outside of a couple of offensive fumbles that Rootstown was fortunate to recover.
The Rovers scored on all four of their possessions in the first half and used its powerful running game to total 203 yards on the ground, with Morgan, a senior, accounting for 185 of those.
It allowed Rootstown to build a 28-7 lead by halftime.
“I was really happy with how we started the game tonight,” Knopick said. “I thought we were very physical, and we were ready to play. (Southeast) made it tough on us. They came out in a different front than we had seen them in before, but we were able to adjust. I think we had a couple of sloppy moments, but we were able to overcome those pretty quickly.”
Rootstown’s first score came with 8:02 showing the first-quarter clock on a 16-yard run by Ryan Piscitani.
In what appeared to be a broken play, a slow or missed handoff for action designed for the right edge, Piscitani alertly turned to his left and found nothing but open field in front of him, as he raced nearly untouched to the end zone. The score was set up by a successful fourth-and-9 conversion on a 10-yard pass completion from Piscitani to Nick Malek.
Blake Mullaly’s extra point put the Rovers up 7-0.
Rootstown regained possession on an interception by Chris Cooper. It was Cooper’s first of two picks on the night and the first of three for the Rovers in the game.
The Rovers again powered down the field and eventually pushed across the goal line on a 3-yard run by Morgan to increase the lead to 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Rootstown’s advantage grew to 21-0 on a 4-yard run by Morgan at the beginning of the second quarter (10:17). It appeared the lead would grow more, but after forcing Southeast to punt on its ensuing possession, the kick bounced and hit an unknowing Rootstown player getting set up to block for the return and the ball was quickly pounced on by a Pirates player at the Rovers’ 20.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, Southeast (6-2, 1-2) scored a few players later on a jet sweep by Case Myers from nine yards out.
Rootstown scored once more before the half, marching down the field without any timeouts and scoring inside of 2 minutes on a 26-yard pass from Piscitani to Malek, who caught the ball about 10 yards outside of the end zone and did the rest of the work breaking tackles and finding the end zone.
Most of the second half was eerily strange, with no rhythm and filled with a multitude of penalties by both teams as the game came to a screeching halt by flags.
For the game, Rootstown was penalized 12 times for 120 yards and Southeast had 10 penalties for 93 yards. Hidden from those totals, were more than a couple off-setting penalties for what became a 2-hour second half.
After a scoreless third quarter, the only score of the second half came by the Rovers in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard pass from Piscitani to Malek, who finished the game with three receptions for 56 yards, a defensive interception and a couple of nice pass breakups.
Will McEwuen, Cohen Schlaubach and Cooper, along with Malek, played incredible games in the defensive backfield for the Rovers.
The group totaled three interceptions (Cooper had two and Malek had one), but also had a series of breakups, while also pursuing the ball for tackles all over the field.
“Coach (Alan) Vanderink runs our secondary, and he does a great job of preparing our guys,” Knopick said. “He prepares them for every possible formation and what to expect out of those formations so that our guys know all of the routes ahead of time. Those guys did a fantastic job tonight.”
Morgan finished with 233 yards rushing and now has 1,765 yards on the season.
Mogadore defeated St. Thomas Aquinas, 53-6, on Friday and shares Rootstown’s 3-0 league record. The two teams will meet for the 54th time.