For years, Nathan White’s primary focus on Friday nights was simple.
How do we score? Who do we need to put points up on this drive? What schemes will give us the best chance to reach the end zone?
But White, now Athens’ first-year head varsity football coach, found himself facing more questions following his debut last weekend at Waverly. The Bulldogs (0-1) lost 30-27, and the margin is the kind that will drive all coaches — new or experienced — nuts.
“You’ve got to see the big picture,” White said. “As the offensive coordinator, I truly cared about nothing else.”
Suddenly, the coordinator who never wanted to punt — just ask former head coach Ryan Adams — now has to think about it.
“Much less pressure and it’s a lot easier to say ‘Let’s go for it’ as the offensive coordinator,” White said, with a laugh. “As the head coach, there are time you better punt. That certainly crossed my mind Friday night.”
Still calling the offense, White had plenty to be pleased about despite the loss at Waverly. The Bulldogs moved the ball at will in the first half, Athens piled up 314 yards and new starting quarterback Joey Moore looked like a natural.
But as a head coach, there was one aspect that White couldn’t ignore. The Bulldogs were either not conditioned well enough, or not deep enough to make a strong first-half pay off with a road win over a quality opponent.
The Tigers owned the second half, shut out Athens after the break and saw RB Payton Shoemaker run for 201 yards against a gassed Bulldog defense. White said as much after the game on Friday, and reiterated his point again on Monday.
Whether it was cramping, tired legs or both, the Bulldogs couldn’t finish the job at Waverly. And fixing that falls on the head coach.
“If it was a conditioning thing and we’re not in good enough shape, not tough enough, then in my eyes that lands right on the head coach for not having them in good enough shape,” White said. “I took responsibility for that with our kids on Friday night and that’s something we’re going to fix.”
The Bulldogs better work quick. Jackson (1-0) invades The Plains on Friday night.
The Ironmen knocked off Wellston (23-6) in their opener. But more importantly, Jackson is one of the better programs in southeastern Ohio, year in and year out. The Ironmen have been to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, current head coach Andy Hall has the most coaching victories in program history at 82, and the roster is stacked with upper classmen who have starting and playoff experience — highlighted by three-year quarterback in senior Jared Icenhower.
The Ironmen know who they are, how to play, and what it takes to win. Those are all lessons that the Bulldogs, who lost a 20-senior class after 2018, are still trying to learn.
“Same old Jackson. They’re big and physical, and I mean that in a positive sense,” White explained.
“The most impressive thing is how hard their coaches get their kids to play. You can tell their kids are really invested in their program and are proud to play for Jackson. Their effort, intensity and physicality that jumps off the tape.”
Athens and Jackson are familiar foes. The two programs went toe-to-toe for decades in the now defunct Southeastern Ohio Athletic League, with the Ironmen usually holding the upper hand.
Friday night will be the 93rd meeting between the schools on the gridiron, and Jackson leads the all-time series 48-41-3.
“It’s neat. When I played here we were in the same league. It’s the old SEOAL, Jackson was a yearly battle, which didn’t always go our way,” said White, an 1999 Athens graduate.
“They were a great program in the 90s as well. It’s a team we haven’t played in a while but to me feel very familiar.”
Athens lost 17 of 18 meetings against Jackson on its way out of the SEOAL. But, the Bulldogs won the two most recent meetings — behind quarterback Joe Burrow. The last meeting came in 2013 when the ‘Dogs hung a 49-0 shiner on Jackson at Rutter Field.
Burrow and White combined for a lot of exploits from 2012-14. That era of Athens teams — at one time — owned three of the top 11 points seasons in OHSAA history. The Athens team of 2014 still owns the top mark with 861 points in a season.
But as a head coach, White has more than points on his mind nowadays. He has to find a way to get his team more fit, or tougher, or deeper, with a rock-solid opponent coming to town.
Add to that the pressure of knowing an 0-2 start might doom any postseason hopes the Bulldogs have for 2019.
“There’s no panic at all,” White said. “We have another huge game this week, another big game the next week, and then we start the league.
“It’s certainly a one week at a time thing,” he continued. “The only thing you can try to do is get better today.”
— Junior quarterback Joey Moore certainly made an impact in his first game as a starter. Moore had a team-high 26 carries for 60 yards on the ground, and completed 24 of 38 throws for 278 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
White thought he knew what he was getting with Moore, and saw the evidence to back it up on Friday.
“The only thing that you wonder about is the Friday night lights, first time as the quarterback, how is he going to respond,” White said. “He responded really well. He took some hits, was tough and popped back up.”
— Athens is planning to operate without a go-to tailback in 2019 and that showed in the opener. Moore, on various read options, was the leading ball carrier. Senior Corbin Stalder and junior Peyton Gail were next up with five carries each.
— Neither Athens, nor Jackson, scored offensive points in the second half of their opening games. Whoever can flip that number around should have a big upper hand on Friday.