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Why are high school football games so often lopsided?

Why are high school football games so often lopsided?

Area coaches weigh in
Why are high school football games so often lopsided?
The average Section II game this year is decided by nearly 30 points.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Brian Clawson gives more than a glance at the area’s scores each week.

After all, as the head coach of the Shenendehowa varsity program, Clawson is heavily invested in the Section II football scene. More than looks at them, Clawson studies the scores to see how his program’s rivals and his friends’ teams are doing on a weekly basis.

And, yes, that many of the games each week are blowouts is not lost on him.

But when told the average score difference in a game this year in the area, it stunned him for a second.

“Really?” Clawson said. “OK, yeah, that does surprise me. I mean, I study the scores every week and follow them all closely, but that’s a high number.”

The exact figure: 27.2.

That is, through six weeks of action, the average spread this year in a Section II game involving teams from the same classification. Class AA has produced the closest average game with a margin of 25.0, while Class B’s average difference of 33.2 is the largest. In every class, games decided by three or more touchdowns are considerably more common than games played within one score.

Coaches, in general, echoed Clawson’s reaction: Surprised at the actual figure, but not that the average game is not a close one.

“That’s more the expectation,” Stillwater head coach Ian Godfrey said.

Here, though, is where this becomes particular unique: While every high school sport has its traditional powerhouses that routinely win big, it has become increasingly evident in high school football that nearly every program is capable of winning by 20 points one week, then losing by 20 the next.

So . . . why is that?

No coach The Daily Gazette contacted thought there is a significant issue with programs that go out of their way to run up scores on lesser opponents. In general, coaches interviewed thought most of their peers make sure their starters are out of blowouts in fourth quarters, if not earlier. Box scores of local games support that notion, too, as lopsided games tend to have most of their scoring done early, not late.

Those same coaches offered up a wide variety of answers as to what they think is happening.

The most common answer coaches provided as to why there are so many blowouts on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons was to look at how the sport has changed in how it is played at the high school level. Offenses are more diverse than they were a decade or more ago, and — largely — the emphasis has become stronger to find ways to utilize a team’s top athletes out in space.

That makes it possible for teams to score quicker — and that means games between unequal teams, coaches said, are now more prone to becoming significantly one-sided.

“Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. That’s the truth,” Schalmont head coach Joe Whipple said. “That’s especially true with the spread [offenses] if you have three or four athletes that are [elite] and their coaches do a good job with them. . . . They see mismatches and they take advantage of them. If there are one or two of those mismatches in a game, that could be 20 quick points.”

Increasingly, passing becomes a larger part of Section II offenses each year, too. That reality, coupled with an increase in teams playing an up-tempo style, creates “longer” games with more possessions and plays on which to score.

“And that didn’t really happen 10, 15 years ago,” Clawson said.

“So the game has changed at the high school level,” Saratoga Springs head coach Terry Jones said. “If you go back to the 1980s and you look at a Shen vs. Saratoga game, you’d probably see five or six passes the entire game between both teams combined.”

Thinking back to an old-school battle between Saratoga Springs and Shenendehowa is helpful here, too. Years ago, teams generally played similar offensive styles to each other.

Now?

One week, a defense can face a spread offense . . . the next, they see a power I attack . . . then, a wing-T approach . . . and the list continues.

“So what we have to do is, based on our schedule each year, come up with a defense that we feel can try to stop everything to a degree, from a spread to a flexbone,” Whipple said. “That way, there isn’t much transition every week for our kids [defensively] because if you go from one philosophy to the next each week, that’s too tough. You need to make it as simple as possible for the kids.”

But that means defenses aren’t necessarily best-equipped each week to take on a given opposing offense.

“So a lot of what we have to do is adjusting on the fly to what we see,” Godfrey said, “while also trying to keep it as simple as possible.”

Small schools, in particular, face extra challenges in terms of avoiding lopsided games.

While large-school teams are able to have more players competing on one side of the ball, small-school squads often have an abundance of two-way starters. That means if a series doesn’t go well for a team’s offense, the team’s defense is made up of players who haven’t had time on the sideline to regroup — mentally or physically.

“And that downhill effect happens once you give up a couple big plays,” Godfrey said. “It’s the same kids playing offense and defense, and they become deflated [and a game then gets out of control]. I think a lot of that happens. Without a doubt.”

The other significant problem of having a small roster? Injuries from one week can derail a team’s chances for the next before kickoff even comes around. That’s something Broadalbin-Perth head coach Jim Pelneau sees regularly affect small-school programs.

“One week, you may have 22, 23 kids on your roster and you play a really physical game, maybe blow someone out yourself — but two guys go down in the game,” Pelneau said. “Then, the next week, you’ve got two or three JV kids playing on your team and that makes a big difference. When your depth is challenged like that, I think you see more lopsided scores.”

Next week, postseason action starts in three of the area’s classifications. Closer games, presumably, are on the horizon after six weeks of mostly one-sided games.

“And it is nice when you do see some parity,” Godfrey said.

Reach Michael Kelly at mkelly@dailygazette.net or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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