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Fairland defensive lineman Alec Dement (53) sacks South Point quarterback Jordan Ermalovich during a high school football Friday at Alumni Stadium in South Point, Ohio.

ROME TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Melvin Cunningham knows something about pass defense.

That knowledge could be invaluable as the former Marshall University All-American cornerback leads Fairland (5-1 overall, 2-1 Ohio Valley Conference) into its key Friday 7 p.m. home game with Portsmouth (6-1, 3-0) at Jim Mayo Memorial Stadium.

The Trojans feature senior quarterback Drew Roe, a 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior, who has completed 124 of 184 passes (67 percent) for 1,645 yards and 21 touchdowns, with four interceptions. Roe also has carried 69 times for 386 yards and 11 touchdowns.

While at Marshall, Cunningham knew pass defense wasn’t just about the secondary. Defensive linemen Billy Lyon and Giradie Mercer, linebackers Larry McCloud and John Grace, and several other defenders were equally important in the Thundering Herd’s success. Cunningham said such a team effort will be required to slow Roe.

“The biggest thing is we have to find a way to get him on the ground,” Cunningham said of Roe. “Teams have had him in their grasp and he pulls some magician’s trick and gets away. It’s not about just getting to him, but getting him down.”

Pressuring Roe isn’t an easy task. He releases the ball quickly and often throws short passes that receivers turn into long gains. Donovan Carr, Reade Pendleton, Jayden Duncan and Dariyonne Bryant are prolific receivers.

“We have to rally to the ball as a coalition,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been good at doing that. We have to be solid tacklers. If you miss one of those guys in open space, he can turn it into six points.”

Fairland handled Roe and the Trojans well last season in a 34-6 victory in Portsmouth. The Dragons forced Roe from the pocket and harassed him much of the night as he completed 17 of 31 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown.

Cunningham said as good as Roe was in 2020, he’s even better this season.

“He’s changed,” Cunningham said “He’s so much quicker getting rid of the ball and is more confident. It looks like his understanding of coverages has gotten better.”

The game is one of great implications for playoff points. Fairland is fifth in Ohio Division VI, Region 23 with 10.1552 points in the Harbin Computer Ratings, which determine playoff teams and seeds. A triumph over the Division V Trojans, who are fifth in Region 19 with 10.2204 points, might be enough for the Dragons to secure multiple home games in the postseason if they win out. Portsmouth also is playing for such positioning.

“Definitely, it’s a big game,” Cunningham said. “There are a lot of ramifications for playoff points.”

Fairland has somewhat played to its competition this season. The Dragons played well against strong foes Portsmouth West, Ironton and Columbus South, as well as against 1-6 Oak Hill. They weren’t as sharp, however, in triumphs over Rock Hill and South Point.

Cunningham said his team must play well to win Friday.

“We have to play better than we did last week,” Cunningham said. “Last week, we were our own Achilles heel for most of the game. To win this game, we have to do a lot of little things better.”

Tim Stephens is a sports writer with The Herald-Dispatch.

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