Veteran Northwood coach Ken James can count his team’s league losses during the last 12 years on one hand. He needs two hands and seven fingers to account for many playoff losses.
Since joining the Toledo Area Athletic Conference in 2001, the Rangers have posted a 64-4 record in league play and have won nine titles. The playoff line isn’t as pretty.
Despite all of the regular season success, James’ teams have struggled when it matters most. The Rangers are 1-7 in seven postseason appearances.
Well aware of his playoff track record, James said he will stress fundamentals in the days leading up to Friday night, when his troops will attempt to get Northwood over the playoff hump and win the school its first playoff game in nine years.
“Execution is at a premium,” James said. “You can’t miss blocks, you can’t miss tackles, you can’t miss assignments.”
Northwood (9-0, 6-0 TAAC) clinched its fourth straight playoff berth and second consecutive league title last week with a 26-6 triumph over Division VI playoff contender Ottawa Hills.
The Rangers piled up 311 rushing yards against the Green Bears, who were previously unbeaten in the league.
As of Thursday, the Rangers were ranked second in the region. They could have secured a home playoff game for the second consecutive season with a win against Cardinal Stritch (1-8, 0-6 TAAC) in the regular season finale last Friday. The top-four teams in each region begin the playoffs at home this Friday.
“Seeding isn’t all that important,” James said. “I’ve seen eight seeds beat one seeds. But you’d rather play at home.”
A juggernaut in TAAC play, Northwood hasn’t experienced the same success when the competition stiffens. Playoff opponents have outscored the Rangers by nearly 100 points in three straight blowout wins.
Northwood committed three turnovers in a 49-28 loss to Patrick Henry last season, one year after losing to Archbold, 49-0. In 2009, Northwood surrendered 41 points in a first-round loss to Patrick Henry.
Senior linebacker Nick Whitmore, the reigning TAAC defensive player of the year, said he’ll try to do his part to tighten up a 4-3 defensive unit that has allowed 139 points in three straight first-round playoff losses.
“We know what it's like to lose playoff games,” said Whitmore, referring to the team’s 18 seniors. “We know how bad it feels. We're not about to let that happen again.”
Whitmore has anchored a Northwood defense that is allowing fewer than nine points per game. Opponents have scored a total of three touchdowns in the last five games against the Rangers, who haven’t permitted an opponent to rush for more than a 100 yards since Week 1.
“We’ve lost three playoff games in our career,” Whitmore said. “That’s a big thing for us. We want to win a playoff game more than anything. We’ve been working toward that all year.”
The Rangers have 17 returning starters from last year’s playoff team. The entire offensive line is intact, and senior quarterback Nick Russell has another year of experience directing the team’s high-powered no-huddle offense.
“We have more experience than we ever have,” said Russell, the leader of the wishbone offense that is averaging 48 points per game. “We're headed into the playoffs with a better attitude. We're more experienced.”
Northwood has plenty of experience on its offensive line. Four seniors and a junior, many of them third-year starters, have protected Russell and the team’s four running backs.
Linemen Kevin Baker (5-foot-11, 246 pounds), David Bogart (6-3, 245), Justin Rohrs (6-2, 258), John Segura (6-1, 245) and Travis Whitmore (5-11, 249) have paved the way for a bruising running attack that is averaging more than 300 yards in the last five games. The four bring 998 pounds to the offense, and add another lineman or tight end, and you are easily over 1,000 pounds.
“We feel like we have a team that can be competitive in large part because we are physical up front,” James said. “We're big and dominated by seniors up front, which we think helps us.”
All of the linemen have started since their sophomore seasons. As a result, the senior-led group has formed a tight bond that has helped it steamroll opponents.
“Having them together and having that continuity really helps us make adjustments during games,” James said.
“They’re great guys,” he said. “A lot of those guys are leaders on our football team. They’re fun-loving guys but when they put their helmets on, they mean business.”
James said his team’s ability to block and minimize turnovers will determine its fate this postseason.
“We think we're big and strong up front,” he said. “We protect the football. If we can do those things in a playoff game, we can be competitive. If we turn it over a bunch or give up big plays, then we'll be in trouble.”