Mike Donnelly knew it was coming.
The third-year Clay football coach looked at his 2009 schedule a few months ago and saw City League rivals Central Catholic, Whitmer, St. John’s Jesuit, Rogers and St. Francis de Sales staring him down.
No other CL team had such a brutal schedule to close out the last half of the regular season.
Central ended the Eagles' three-game winning streak with a 29-14 win on Oct. 2, and Donnelly's squad fell to 4-3 and 2-2 in the CL with an embarrassing 38-0 home loss to Whitmer (6-1, 3-1) last Friday.
Clay finished with two turnovers and just 12 yards passing and 40 yards rushing in the loss to the Panthers.
"The most disappointing thing was we only had two first downs," Donnelly said. "We didn't establish any type of running game at all. They were able to tee off and play man-to-man coverage. They just pinned their ears back because we didn't have a running game.
"If there is no running game, there is no passing game. Our offense depends on being able to run the ball to set up our passing game. Since we haven't been able to run this year, that's put a lot of stress on our passing game. That's why we've been struggling."
Size-wise, Donnelly said the Eagles will be overmatched this week against St. John's and next Friday at Rogers, who at 6-1 and 3-1 are also vying for a CL championship under coach Rick Rios.
For that reason, Donnelly said he and his coaching staff sat down and dissected the Eagles' offense - where it's been and where it's headed.
"We're not going to be the biggest, fastest or strongest and we need to look at what's going to fit best for our kids to beat the top teams in our league," Donnelly said. "I've been thinking about it for a while."
Despite an inconsistent running game, junior quarterback Josh Utter has played admirably, completing 73-of-132 (55 percent) passes for 929 yards and seven touchdowns, with seven interceptions.
Clay's offense features a multiple pro set with one running back, but that is about to change.
"We decided these last three weeks we're going to change our running philosophy and go to more of an option attack," Donnelly said. "We want to force these teams that are bigger and stronger than us to play assignment football. We've been doing a little bit of it in practice, but not a lot. Josh was real skeptical on Monday, but he said, 'I think this is going to be good for us.' Austin (Achter) is going to see time at quarterback as well. Our linemen seem to like it. We've been a lot better the last few days."
Through seven games, the Eagles' top rusher is Kyle Stevenson, with 66 carries for 300 yards. Achter, a junior, has 212 yards rushing on 64 carries and is 1-for-2 passing for 2 yards.
Last year, Clay finished 7-3 and 5-2 in the CL behind second-team all-league running back Mike Toth, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards.
"Compared to the top teams in the league, we're an academy school like Army and Navy," Donnelly said. "We're not going to be as talented as the top teams in the league. We do have skilled kids and good athletes. I think it (option offense) will be a unique thing that nobody in the league plays. I feel comfortable about it.
"It's time for a change, and the kids have warmed up to the idea. We're not changing our passing game, we're meshing it with the option game. Our quarterbacks are seeing that it's really not changing a whole lot. I don't expect it to be great off the bat. It's going to be a work in progress."
Donnelly said Clay's option offense philosophy will trickle down to the junior high.
"As I look down into our seventh grade, that's where we have to go," he said. "We have skill kids, but nobody's big and we're not going to outrun anybody. I was joking with our coaches, saying I've gone to the 'dark side.' I never thought I would be an option coach, but you have to check your ego at the door and that's where I'm at."
Next Friday's game marks the first time Donnelly has faced Rogers since he's been at Clay. The Rams are led by senior quarterback E.J. Tucker, who ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 134 yards and two TDs in last Friday's 56-8 win over Waite.
"They're big, they're athletic and they're fast," Donnelly said. "They have good skill kids. This is one of those games where you can play great defense all night and they can have four plays and score 28 points. We have to play disciplined and control the football. They're overaggressive on defense at times, so hopefully that can fit with what we're doing with the option."
Offensively, Bobby Hoffman leads Clay with 22 catches for 410 yards and four scores, and Nick Roman has 19 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
"Our two inside linebackers, (seniors) Mike Ackerman and Ryan Brandeberry, are playing real well," Donnelly said.
"Josh Schmitz has played really well at defensive tackle. Those three have kind of anchored the middle for us."
Ackerman has 90 tackles (61 solo), with nine tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries. Brandeberry has 59 tackles (25 solo), with three sacks and seven tackles for loss. Schmitz, a senior, has 27 tackles (16 solo), five sacks and five quarterback hurries.