While it is the skill position players in football—quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers—who produce the tangible numbers that pepper a team’s stat sheet, the offensive line deserves credit for making much of their production possible.
“(The offensive line) is really everything,” Northwest High School football coach Mike Neubeiser said. “You can have the best skill guys, but if there’s nobody to block for them, they’re not going to be very effective.”
With Northwest’s fifth consecutive playoff berth on the line, the Jaguars’ Cole Cheripko- and David Riggio-led offensive line put forth its best effort of the season in a 41-10 win over Clarksburg on Oct. 28.
Through Week 9, Northwest (6-3) sits in fourth place in the Class 4A West Region, behind Quince Orchard, Richard Montgomery (which it beat comfortably earlier in the season) and Montgomery Blair. The top four teams advance to the postseason.
The Jaguars can clinch a playoff bid with a victory over resurgent Thomas S. Wootton (5-4) Friday evening. Northwest has outscored the Patriots by a combined 146-24 in the teams’ last three meetings, but Neubeiser acknowledged Wootton is on a different level this fall.
The Jaguars are quite familiar with what it feels like to make playoffs but Neubeiser admitted a postseason run this season would be different. “There (would be) more of a feeling of accomplishment; we have struggled this year, for us,” he said. “We expected to come out and win more games than we did. We didn’t perform very efficiently early in the season, we made dumb mistakes. So to get to this point and be playing at a higher level, there’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment.”
Communication and selflessness are vital, if an offensive line is to best serve its purpose—blocking to create openings for running backs and to give quarterbacks time to assess their passing options. Timing, Neubeiser added, is also essential.
“(All the linemen) have to be in the right place at the right time,” he continued. “If one guy is slow on the O-line, it can cause a lot of problems. And for big guys, that can be pretty difficult. We have guys who weigh 300 pounds, so doing the right thing at the same time can be a challenge.”
But a tighter performance by the offensive line in the Clarksburg win opened the door for Northwest’s dynamic backfield duo to do more damage on the ground. Junior Juwon Farri rushed for 169 yards and four touchdowns on 11 carries and senior Khalil Owens was 8 for 91 with a touchdown. Owens had two additional long runs that were called back for penalties, Neubeiser said. Farri has rushed for 886 touchdowns and 11 touchdowns on 102 carries in 2016 and Owens is 128 for 873 and 16 touchdowns.
The Jaguars’ strong run game also positively impacted their aerial attack. When Northwest can force opposing defenses to throw an extra player in the box, it creates better matchups for its athletic receiving corps.
Junior quarterback Chris Craddock completed 9 of 12 pass attempts for 101 yards against Clarksburg. Seven different players caught at least one pass and four of them tallied at least 13 yards of offense. Craddock has now thrown for 1,253 yards and nine touchdowns.
Northwest has been a notoriously slow starter this fall, Neubeiser said, and set its focus on getting off to a quicker start against the Coyotes. The Jaguars scored three touchdowns in the first quarter alone to take a 21-0 lead. They were ahead 34-7 at halftime. It will be important for them to continue that trend against Wootton.
“This is an exciting time of the season, because anything can happen,” Neubeiser said. “As long as you’re still in it, you always have a chance.”