By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
SUGAR CREEK TWP. The first game film the coaches from both Fairless and Manchester grabbed when they sat down to game plan for Saturday’s Division V regional semifinal was from the game they played against each other in September.
That game, a 49-48 triple overtime Fairless win in Week 4, was the jumping-off point for both coaching staffs in advance of the rematch at Central Catholic Stadium.
“Unless somebody makes a drastic change, they know what we’re going to do, because we’re not going to change much,” Manchester coach Jim France said. “I doubt that they’ll change much. It makes it a lot easier as far as the unknown; you know pretty much what they’re doing and they know what we’re doing. It’s just like Week 4 all over again.”
Except that, no doubt the next film both coaches would’ve likely grabbed was from the other’s playoff opener. For Fairless, it would be Manchester’s 19-16 win against Ursuline; for the Panthers, the Falcons’ 51-42 win against Black River.
When viewed, contrary to France’s contention, both teams aren’t quite the same as they were in Week 4.
Some of the changes may be subtle, or necessitated by injury. Others, though, are much more noticeable, especially to coaching staffs that have become bleary-eyed from watching game film of their opponent.
“I think we’ve improved defensively, and I think it’s shown up in some games,” Fairless coach Don Wilson said. “When we played Manchester, it was early in the year, and we were just starting to get an idea of what we could do offensively with a new look that we haven’t had before. I think they’ve had an opportunity to see how other people have defended us. That could give them ideas.”
Of course, the same holds true for the team facing Fairless.
Manchester will never be mistaken offensively for being wide-open and pass-happy. Still, there have been times — not just this year but in recent seasons — where the Panthers have gone to a spread look and thrown the ball.
Three times this year, Manchester has attempted at least 25 passes, and four times, the Panthers have thrown for at least 219 yards. First-year starting quarterback Pavin Parks has completed 109 of 179 passes for 1,430 yards this season.
But at the same time, Manchester of late has gone back to that staple of France’s program, the power running game out of the T formation. In fact, that power game, which gained 272 yards in last week’s win against Ursuline, is a big reason why the Panthers are in the second round of the playoffs.
“They’re expanding their offense a little bit,” Wilson said. “That’s one thing we’ve noticed. But they’re also relying more and more on their power game. Early in the season, they didn’t go to the power game. ... What we’re seeing is they’re going to the power game a lot sooner.”
The converse, though, holds true for Fairless.
The Falcons have rightfully earned a reputation as a pass-first, pass-often offense. After all, senior quarterback Hunter Wells has thrown for a Stark County-record 3,395 yards this season.
Yet, Fairless has also shown another side to its offense. And while the Falcons won’t be confused with a Woody Hayes three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack, they’ve been able to run the ball in recent games.
As a team, Fairless is averaging just more than 20 running attempts a game. But the added dimension of 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Mahaffey, who battled an early-season injury, is something the Panthers are certainly pondering.
Overall, though, the key to Fairless’ running game will fall back to how well the Falcons execute what they do best.
“The passing game is the key there,” France said. “When you’re 50-50, it’s hard to tell. Maybe when you’re 70 (percent)-30, it opens those lanes up when you want to sneak a run or two in there.”