Everybody knows that the Eagles can fly. But what happens if their wings are clipped? That's what the Grizzlies aim to find out when the two teams square off in a Southern Sky Conference prep football game loaded with playoff implications Friday night at Eagle Stadium.
Both teams have plenty to win and lose. Fourth-ranked Ashland (8-0, 3-0 SSC) still has a perfect season going after last week's emotional come-from-behind, playoff-clinching victory over Klamath Union and can snare the SSC title outright with a win over Eagle Point. The Eagles (4-4, 1-1 SSC) are in the middle of what has become another wild SSC playoff hunt and still have an outside shot at a league championship.
Like last week, Ashland's defense expects to be tested, this time by the most pass-happy offense in the state. The Eagles, led by quarterback Scott Erickson, average 291.8 passing yards per game &
more than 70 yards per game more than the No. 2 team on the list, Klamath Union. Erickson's numbers are out of this world: he's completed 218 passes for 2,238 yards and 20 touchdowns, tops in the state in each category.
His favorite target, Garrett Davis, also is enjoying a banner season. He leads the state in both catches (79) and yards (908) and has scored eight touchdowns.
"They're so efficient with it because it is such a short pass, the ball's off in two seconds and you really can't put any pressure on the quarterback," Ashland head coach Charlie Hall said of the Pelicans, who have lost two straight since opening league play with a 38-14 trouncing of Mazama. "They have some quick, good-hands receivers and they're just taking advantage of what their strengths are.
"You've got to be able to adjust your coverage a little bit so that you're taking away their short passes, but when you do that you're vulnerable to the run a little bit."
That may be a chance the Grizzlies are willing to take, however, especially considering that the Eagles average just 3.4 yards per rush.
Meanwhile, Ashland's list of strengths seems to be the antithesis of Eagle Point's. While the Grizzlies' offense has been held to 16 points or less in three of its last four games, their defense is holding opponents to about 10 points per game, fifth-best in the state.
The play-makers are Julian Ewald, Josh Scarminach and Max Gordon, but plenty of others &
Jack Rassmussen, Rick Sayler, Sam Gaviglio and Issa Shahin, just to name a few &
also make consistent contributions. If there's a weakness, the Grizzlies are hiding it well. No team has scored more than 16 points against them.
"There's more of a bend, don't break concept," Hall said. "(Klamath Union) ran the ball and they did their things, but once they got in the red zone they weren't able to get the ball into the end zone, and that's the bottom line."
More impressive, it seems like every week a different Grizzly defender comes through when it matters most. Last Friday, it was Scarminach who intercepted a potential touchdown pass to snuff out the Pelicans' final drive. And earlier in the game, Ashland defensive back Will Bowers helped bottle up KU do-everything receiver Mark Brooks, who was held to just 18 yards on four receptions.
Predictably, Bowers and the rest of the Ashland secondary are looking forward to playing a team that puts the ball in the air at a record-breaking pace.
"Coach Hall says it's passing league, basically, so it should be a really fun night," Bowers said.
The Grizzlies hope to have fun on offense as well, but to do that they'll have to break out of a funk that's allowed their opponents to stay close. Against KU, for instance, Ashland was held to 198 yards of total offense. That included just 57 yards through the air.
Numbers like that probably won't be enough against the potent Eagles, who are averaging 30.3 points per game.
"We've got to really challenge our players to be able to have some sustained drives," Hall said. "Don't shoot yourself in the foot, don't have a fumbled snap, don't have a penalty, don't have a missed assignment where a guy runs free and makes a tackle. If we can just do those things, we can take care of business."
Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.