RACHEL — In the unofficial first game day of the 2019 football season, North Marion, Fairmont Senior and seven other Big 10 conference schools hit the turf at Roy Michael Field for the second annual Big 10 Grid-a-Rama in their first – and, for some, their last—scrimmage before their respective regular season openers Aug. 29 and 30.

The defending state champion Polar Bears kicked off the round of 10 total scrimmages slated for the day going back-to-back in their two scrimmages. Fairmont Senior first faced Liberty at 9 a.m. before it took on Preston at 10 a.m.

North Marion, on the other hand, hit the field at 1 p.m. for its first action against Buckhannon-Upshur. The Huskies got a one-game break and finished up at 3 p.m.

Despite the Big 10 Grid-a-Rama being its only scrimmage before its regular season opener against BU on Aug 30., FSHS’s full group of No. 1s didn’t see all too much work on either side of the ball. The full starting offense played three 10-play series of the first scrimmage against Liberty and none in the second against Preston, while the defensive starting unit saw even less time, with reserves mixing in as early as Liberty’s second series.

The offense scored on two of those three series behind a sparkling debut by first-year starting quarterback Gage Michael. Michael displayed both excellent ball placement on a diverse set of throws and a knack for progressing through his reads quickly.

“He was accurate today as expected out of us who get to see him every day,” FSHS offensive coordinator Mark Sampson said. “He did his thing for the most part; he did well throwing the ball, he was making the right reads, and he was getting us into good run checks.”

“I felt pretty comfortable in the pocket and I was able to make some throws,” said Michael, who also had a 55-yard run on a non-designed quarterback keeper where he bobbled the snap. “The first two drives, I thought I did pretty well, and then on the third one, I made a mistake or two.”

Michael started his day 3-for-3, and perhaps his most impressive throw of the day came on the first play when he dropped a pass in the bucket to senior receiver Camden Longwell up the sideline for a

35-yard gain. The Polar Bears’ first drive stalled inside the 10-yard line, however, with FSHS gaining just 10 yards on its last five plays, four of which were runs.

“We started off pretty slow. The first play, we completed a long pass to Camden down the sidelines, but after that, I don’t know we kind of slowed down. At the goal line we had a couple of opportunities to score and we just couldn’t finish,” said Michael of a first drive that otherwise looked like clockwork. “But then we started to pick it up on the second and third drive. We just have to keep working and getting better everyday to be ready for game day.”

Michael dimed up Longwell again on another over-the-shoulder deep ball on the second series, this one down the left sideline, and he wedged one in on a skinny post for a touchdown on the third. His only real gaffe came on one of his final plays when he was picked off forcing a ball over the middle.

The FSHS defense was rock solid in its limited action, with Liberty failing to cross midfield and really do much of anything after completing an out route on its first play.

“We did a great job of No. 1 just getting lined up and recognizing formations. Our guys got into their coverages and played their assignments well,” FSHS coach Nick Bartic said. “And in the box, man, we were really physical.”

Senior star Zach Frazier did his usual damage, blowing up double teams and shedding blocks, but senior nose tackle Lance Payton and fellow starting defensive end Jason Howard were stout as well.

“I didn’t really play much defense at all (last year), so working in at nose guard (is new),” said Payton, who was an all-state honorable mention selection at center for FSHS in 2018. “It’s just about not getting too far upfield.”

Payton got to Liberty quarterback Noah Leggett for a sack on a designed quick-hitter and later registered a tackle for loss, cleaning up the scraps of a play initially derailed by Frazier’s penetration. All-conference linebacker Nate Kowalski made a nice tackle in pursuit on a screen pass, defensive tackle Kole Richmond had a tackle for loss, and Frankie Smith recovered a fumble on a botched handoff as the other highlights of the first two defensive series.

“We’re gonna watch the film and evaluate everybody,” said Sampson of the team’s next steps. “Then we’ll put a more narrow list of the depth chart down and that’s who we’ll be going with Week 1.”

North Marion took the field two hours after Fairmont Senior exited it, and the Huskies were just about as dominant in their debut against BU. The NMHS first-team offense rolled on its first series when it aligned in mostly under-center looks as opposed to shotgun.

The Huskies picked up chunk gains on the ground from Ricky Newbrough and faired well on designed rollouts for senior quarterback Gunner Murphy, which accounted for the bulk of the drives yardage. Murphy hit Ethan Raines for a 13-yard gain rolling right, found Tyler Thorne for a 10-plus-yard gain coming back to his left, and then booted out to his left where he found Jahkari Mesidor over the middle, who slipped a tackle and meandered his way into the 5-yard line.

The team’s second drive was defined by yet another rollout from Murphy out, when he found Hunter Kuhn, who was electric as a playmaker for NMHS all day, streaking over the middle before Kuhn turned the corner and raced 60-plus yards to inside to the 4-yard line.

“I thought overall it was pretty good,” NMHS offensive coordinator Mark Yoho said of the under-center adjustment. “The run game was the best out of it, but we didn’t throw it as well as we need to from under yet.

“We still have to do a better job of getting depth on our boots — we did a good job faking (the handoff) — but we got to get a little more depth. And then we have to carry out fakes like we are booting when we hand it off so we can keep that (defensive) end out of the run game.”

Murphy also saw a couple of series in the team’s second scrimmage against Cameron working more out of the shotgun. He fired a well-placed ball rolling right for a 30-plus-yard TD to Tariq Miller, but he was intercepted on a deep ball the following drive.

Backup sophomore quarterback Brody Hall ran with the offensive No. 1s to start against Cameron. He threw a 50-yard TD pass to Ethan Mays on bubble screen with Mays doing most of the work with elusiveness after the catch.

Defensively, NMHS stonewalled the Bucs, collapsing the pocket quickly on passes and shutting down everything on the ground. Newbrough, the team’s all-conference linebacker, was all over the place, sifting through blockers when pursuing the play and laying the wood on ball carriers when he arrived with sound sticks.

Kaden Hovatter also had a sack on BU’s opening series, while the Bucs’ second drive was highlighted by a tackle for loss by NMHS junior end Jarrett Reed, a big hit by linebacker Brock Troy and a near interception by Hall.

“I thought our defense played pretty well, and I was worried about that,” NMHS coach Daran Hays said after the BU scrimmage. “I thought we were pretty physical, did a good job of cancelling gaps up front, and our linebackers really ran to the ball. I think we also did a nice job with the ball in the air. They completed one pass and it was late, probably would’ve been a sack in a game.”

The team’s run defense remained firm against Cameron, but the secondary sprung a few leaks in coverage.

“The biggest thing for me right now is the inability to overcome a negative,” said Hays in his overall assessment. “We’ll muff one up, and you can live with that, but then it snowballs on us. We’re not mature enough right now to shake it off and move on to the next play.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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