The first-year New London coach will look across the field and see what he hopes the Wildcats will soon be in the form of state-ranked St. Paul in the Firelands Conference opener for both teams.
The ‘Cats (0-3) are coming off a winless FC season in 2017. It will be a stark contrast in facing a Flyers program that hasn’t lost a league game since Week 6 of the 2012 season.
“I’ve said it over and over, Coach (John) Livengood and the job he’s done there is second to none,” Keys said. “Exceptional. That’s the blueprint I want to follow in the FC. Just look and see what he’s done there. You look at them on film and see those kids, you can just tell … they are in system. There’s not any confusion.
“They are hard-nosed, tough kids who maximize effort and come at you play after play,” he added. “That’s just the testament of what’s been built there. When you haven’t lost a conference game in six years, what more can you say? They have kids who just know winning and expect it — and they play like they are going to win.”
New London had a rough first couple weeks in losses to Rocky River Lutheran West (47-13) and Firelands (34-7) — but competed in a 34-22 loss at Wellington last week.
“We’ve just been a team that has taken two steps forward, and one back,” Keys said. “We’ve been very inconsistent. We’ve given up several big plays defensively and haven’t taken care of the ball at times on offense. We haven’t been able to capitalize on some scoring opportunities. That’s just the bottom line.”
Livengood said despite the record, there are visible improvements at New London.
“Their speed stands out, but I think what I’ve seen from their first three games is a lot more of an aggressive approach,” he said of the Wildcats. “Coach Keys is doing a great job of trying to plug guys in where he thinks will be best, and you can see he’s making those changes with their personnel with trying different things to get his best 11 on the field.
“They pay more aggressively on defense, doing a lot more man coverage and stunts, things like that,” Livengood added. “It gives them a better opportunity to be successful and cause problems for the offense. You can see they are making a lot of steps in the right direction. Fundamentally they are a lot better than they have been the last few years.”
Livengood said Norbert Sword is one of the fastest players in the league. He has 256 yards and two touchdowns rushing
“And they play him all over the place on defense,” Livengood said. “They utilize him in a lot of different ways. He has great speed and is a heck of a football player.
“They also have one of the best linemen in the conference in Kevin Fridenstine. He’s a big kid (6-feet-1, 220) and moves real well and does a great job dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
Keys has been playing both Josh Hess and Payton Wilson at quarterback. Wilson takes the majority of the pass attempts, and is 19-of-37 for 288 yards with three touchdowns.
Hess has only attempted nine passes, but is dangerous running the ball with 244 yards and a TD on 33 attempts (7.4 average).
“Hess has a lot of speed when he’s back there and makes you defend 11 on 11 for sure with his running ability and Sword’s ability in the backfield,” Livengood said.
“Wilson is more of the threat with the passing,” he added. “They have some kids who are good players and continue to improve, and are very aggressive — especially on defense.”
Meanwhile, the Flyers are coming off a 33-14 loss to Tiffin Calvert (3-0) — the first loss in the regular season in exactly three years. Trailing 20-14 and 26-14, the Flyers twice turned it over on downs inside the Calvert 5-yard line.
“A lot of the mistakes we made are fundamental ones that we can correct,” Livengood said. “You can’t coach speed, and that was an obvious factor in the game with Austin Jones and Trent Cooper. But I would say this, we didn’t control the line of scrimmage, and that’s something we kind of hang our hat on.
“We didn’t do that on either side of the ball and it’s something we have to a better job of and continue to get better with,” he added. “But when push came to shove, Calvert made plays and we didn’t. That’s really what it came down to. Hopefully we continue to get better and put ourselves in position to where maybe we see them again down the road.”
Livengood noted that when playing a team that doesn’t have Calvert’s speed, a fundamental mistake might only cost five or six yards. Against the Senecas, those mistakes cost the Flyers in the form of TD runs of 40 and 97 yards.
“That’s something we have to do better, and it’s something we spent a lot of time on with film this week and will work hard at in practice,” Livengood said.” We’re going to work to get better every week. There is no staying the same, and we know we have plenty of opportunities for growth.”
Running back Cam Caizzo has 63 attempts for 417 yards and 7 TDs, with Noah Good adding 254 yards and 2 TDs. QB Jake Griffin is 40-of-58 passing for 520 yards with 4 TDs and an interception. Eric Crabbs has 15 catches for 201 yards and 2 TDs, with Gavin Starcher adding nine catches for 117 yards.
“They are just fundamentally sound, tough hard-nosed kids,” Keys said of St. Paul. “They really have no big weaknesses — just a great team.”
Keys noted that the ‘Cats have improved, but the kids need to learn how to win.
“That’s a tough thing,” he said. “They’ve never really even heard they are capable of winning, and it’s a learning process. That’s the dilemma. It will be a situation we have to overcome all year.
“I’ve conveyed to them our biggest opponent is ourselves,” Keys added. “Getting them to wrestle with and fight through the self-doubt, even pity if you will, is our biggest challenge. Once we can overcome that, we can put our best foot forward. We have in my opinion, something to work with. It’s just convincing them of that.”
Keys also noted that on Saturday, and maybe several weeks, the ‘Cats will have nothing to lose.
“I don’t think anyone on the planet expects us to have a chance at winning on Saturday,” he said. “But don’t concede. Anything can happen on any given day. Play hard, play fast and most importantly — have fun.”