WGH defense tested by run game this time

The Warren G. Harding Raiders will face a unique challenge when they play the Chardon Hilltoppers Friday night, in a Division II, Region 5 semifinal matchup at Ravenna.

Harding, which defeated a pass-heavy Brecksville-Broadview Heights team, 56-48, last week, will face a Hilltopper team that does nothing but run, run, run in their Wing-T offense.

“We worked extremely hard this week. We got started on Saturday morning (after the Brecksville game), to prepare for Chardon,” Harding coach Steve Arnold said. “Anytime you have to defend a Wing-T, even though theirs isn’t the full thing, that’s a difficult challenge in itself.”

The Raider defense will have its hands full with a Hilltopper offense that’s rushed for 4,689 yards (426.3 per game) and 55 touchdowns in just 11 games. The Hilltoppers’ (11-0) offense has been so dominant to the point that they rarely ever punt, or turn the ball over.

In 11 games, Chardon has had just three 3-and-outs and has only turned the ball over five times. Needless to say, it’s not hard to imagine Chardon being an undefeated ballclub.

The Hilltopper defense, with an assist from the unstoppable offense, has held opponents to seven points or fewer in seven games. In fact, Chardon’s starters have only played in the fourth quarter in less than half of its games this year.

For the Raiders (10-1), they’ll certainly need all the time they can to study film, but perhaps a previous opponent can help their chances against the Hilltoppers. Harding, whose only loss came in Week 8 to Cardinal Mooney, had difficulty stopping the Cardinals’ potent rushing offense, keeping Lynn Bowden and the Raiders’ powerful offense off the field, frequently.

“All you can do is get better (from the Mooney loss),” Arnold said. “We have to improve in our run defense and not allow them (Chardon) to keep our offense off of the field. We have to force them to punt. (However) you learn from every game this year, even the wins. Because, no game is perfect.”

The key for the Raiders, of course, is to somehow find a way to make the Hilltoppers put the ball in the air. While quarterback Tommy Benenati leads the team with 1,985 rushing yards (10.7 yards per carry) and 25 touchdowns, he’s not asked to throw much, as evidence of his 43 pass attempts.

Even then, Benenati has flourished, as he’s yet to throw an interception, compared to eight touchdown tosses. But, Chardon’s offense has not been tested much this year, as it played just two teams that wound up with a winning record in the regular season, prior to last week’s 56-6 playoff win over Bedford.

According to Arnold, what makes the Wing-T offense so difficult is the deception it presents to opposing defenses.

“You have to be really disciplined (when defending that offense,” Arnold explained. “I’ve been stressing to the guys all week that they have to focus on doing their jobs and stay in their gaps.”