HUNTINGTON - Ironton's defense entered the season as heralded as any in high school football in the Tri-State in many years and has lived up to the hype, allowing a mere six points in two games.
After a 30-6 victory over Wheelersburg and a 10-0 triumph over Russell, the Fighting Tigers (2-0) open Ohio Valley Conference play at 7:30 p.m. Friday vs. Fairland (2-0) at Tanks Memorial Stadium. The Dragons likely bring more explosiveness than did Wheeersburg (0-2) or Russell (2-1), having beaten Tolsia 34-12 and Oak Hill 42-21. Ironton, though, is a much tougher foe than the Rebels (1-1) or the Oaks (0-2).
"Ironton has the No. 1 inside linebacker in the nation," Dragons coach Melvin Cunningham said of junior Reid Carrico, rated at the top of his position by national scouting services, and an Ohio State commit. "But they have more than Carrico. (Seth) Fosson and Cameron Deere are good linebackers and Gage (Salyers) is a good safety. They're coached well."
The winner of Friday's game receives a significant boost in the race for the OVC title, which defending champion Gallia Academy looks to be a favorite with the Tigers and Portsmouth.
"Ironton is the best team in the OVC," Cunningham said. "When they got in the league (four years ago) it was the Ironton Invitational. Ironton, Portsmouth and Gallia Academy came in here and made everyone else become better. We play tough teams week in and week out. I feel we can compete with anyone in the OVC, whether we win or not."
The Tigers won the league their first two seasons in it and had not lost an OVC game until Sept. 8, 2017, when the Dragons stunned them with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Joel Lambiotte to Reilly Sowards with three seconds to play for a 27-21 victory. The defeat was Ironton's first against a team from Lawrence County since 1961.
The Tigers remembered the sting of that loss last season and gained revenge with a 41-23 win at Fairland last Sept. 7.
Carrico, a load at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, leads Ironton's rushing attack. He has 182 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries. Salyers has carried 29 times for 137 yards and one TD. The senior quarterback who has committed to Youngstown State also has completed 12 of 21 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown.
Ironton averages 206 yards rushing and 78.5 passing per game. It's ball-hawking defense has four interceptions.
Fairland features 5-8, 160-pound senior tailback Michael Stitt, who has 211 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Sophomore J.D. Brumfield has 89 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts. Gavin Hunt heads a wide receiver corps that misses Sowards, who is out with a broken collarbone. Hunt has six catches for 151 yards and one touchdown. Stitt has caught six balls for 66 yards. Last week Stitt scored on offense, defense and special teams.
Max Ward, a junior, is Fairland's starting quarterback. Ward is an efficient 20 for 24 for 262 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions. Zander Schmidt also sees times at quarterback.
Fairland averages 164 yards per game rushing and 133 passing.