By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
MASSILLON They are the biggest players on Massillon’s team. And in the biggest game of the season, with the fate of a season hanging in the balance, the Tigers’ offensive line brought its best performance.
That fact is a big reason why Massillon is in the midst of preparations to play host to Nordonia in a Division II first-round playoff game Friday night.
“They’re the heart and soul of our offense,” Tiger running back J.D. Crabtree said of his linemen. “I congratulate every single one of them. If I could give every single one of them Player of the Game, I would. They mean so much to the team and me. It’s great.”
Needing to beat McKinley to get into the playoffs, that line set the tone early and often. And they did it against a Bulldog defensive line that was one of the biggest they had lined up against all season.
Of course, size is all relative. For few teams have been the Tigers’ equal in terms of offensive line size, which is why that unit was viewed as such as strength entering this season.
They boasted tackles that stood 6-foot-3, 260 pounds (Devin Williams) and 6-5, 278 pounds (Chase Lash). Their guards were 6-1, 260 pounds (Ronnie Humphrey) and 6-4, 295 pounds (George Papacostas). And in the middle was a 6-5, 280-pound center (Nathaniel Devers).
And despite the best efforts of McKinley’s defense, that line — with added help from 6-3, 289-pound Nick Bushman — helped Massillon roll to a 34-7 win.
“We want to win the battle in the trenches,” Massillon coach Jason Hall said this week. “We talk about it every day, every week. That’s the role of that offensive line. They really had a big task on Saturday, and I thought they handled it.”
Not that there wasn’t a bit of adversity for that line to handle. Williams suffered an earaly leg injury that could potentially limit him in Friday’s playoff opener.
When Williams went down, Bushman came in to play guard while Papacostas slid over to fill the tackle void. Yet, there was hardly a beat missed, as Massillon finished with 218 net rushing yards.
“One of our tackles went down, and we just had to make changes,” said Tiger back Lyron Wilson, who rushed for a game-high 184 yards. “McKinley was just sending the house on some plays. We had to get up in there. That’s how they do it.”
Which is exactly the kind of situation the linemen had been preparing for throughout the offseason. One of the things that made this line such a strength, beyond the size and experience they possessed, was also a certain versatility as well.
Devers actually shifted from guard to center prior to the season beginning, while Humphrey — a center at Perry last year — moved back to guard. Papacostas has played both guard and tackle this season.
“All those guys know multiple positions,” Hall said. “It was really just a matter of plugging Bush in and moving George out. As far as that’s concerned, they’ve been working since June on that.”
Still, the group came under a bit of fire after a Week 2 win against GlenOak, in which the Golden Eagles were credited with six sacks and multiple other knockdowns. There was also the Week 7 loss at Austintown Fitch, in which Massillon was held to just 53 rushing yards.
Yet, none of that matters now as the Tigers get ready to start a new season, with new life in the playoffs. And a big reason for that is because of the big players along the offensive line.
“I think it comes with reps and experience,” Hall said. “They’ve faced some good teams. Even when we’ve handled adversity, we’ve put up points. They’ve seen a lot, and the more you see stuff, the more you’re able to adjust during the game and handle it.
“I thought they did that well on Saturday. I thought they did it well in the second half against (St. Vincent-St. Mary) and Fitch. We expect them to play well.”
Play well, they did. And play on, Massillon will.
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE