The only thing standing in the way between the Kentucky Warriors and a second straight appearance in the Northern Frontier Football League championship game is the Columbus Gladiators. But a win over the 9-1 Gladiators won’t come easy.
The Gladiators are a perfect 9-0 this season in games decided on the field, their only loss coming by forfeit. Led by a balanced rushing attack from Jamar Yates and Allen Ritchie, the Gladiators are averaging over 10 yards per rushing attempt. In the passing game, quarterback Ben Kershaw has thrown for 714 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 132 yards.
But the real strength of the Gladiators comes on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve allowed just 18 points throughout the entire season, 12 of which came in a single game against the Butler County Bulldogs. According to Warrior head coach Jamie Rice, the Gladiators run a suffocating man-to-man pass coverage while stacking the box to defend against the run.
Earlier this season, the Warriors scrimmaged the Gladiators in Columbus a month before the season began. Being a meaningless game early in the year, Kentucky only managed to bring 23 players, while the Gladiators had about 40 players show up. Even without its leading rusher, leading tackler, all of its linebackers, two of its starting defensive backs and three of its starting offensive lineman, Kentucky managed to hang close in a 26-21 loss.
“I go back and watch that film and it almost doesn’t look like the same team,” Rice said.
Despite the scrimmage, the Warriors coaching staff is still fairly unfamiliar with the Gladiators. Having been in another semi-pro league the past few seasons, Columbus has never met Kentucky in a meaningful game.
“A lot of it will be in-game adjustments,” Rice said. “Whatever someone is trying to do, we can adjust to it.”
Rice is on record as saying that he feels this year’s Warriors team is currently in a better position than last year’s NFFL runner-up squad. He attributes that to the Warriors’ new pistol-style offense and the development of younger players.
“We would go into games last year saying ‘We need to hold these guys to 14 points and force a bunch of turnovers’ because we weren’t really dynamic on offense,” Rice said. “We’re so much better offensively this year than we were last year.”
Thanks in part to first year backs Jontez Jones and Luke Brown, the Warriors have developed a dynamic run-first offense that has been one of the best in the league. But as good as the Warriors’ offense has been this season, their season hangs on the outcome of Saturday’s game. That, Rice said, will come down to execution.
“If we go out there and play our A-game, I like our chances.”
The Conference Championship game kicks off tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at Dublin Jermoe High School in Columbus. The radio call will also be streamed online at www.burgfan.com.
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter