When Northwestern football coach Kyle Richardson was born in 1978, Charlotte Catholic’s Jim Oddo was already a 16-year veteran of coaching.
Friday night at District 3 Stadium, the two head men will test wits in a matchup of teams as contrasting as they themselves are. Northwestern (1-0), widely known for slinging the ball around in Richardson’s iteration of the Air Raid offense, will host the Cougars (1-0), long admired for old school, head-smashing football.
Richardson, 35, and Oddo, 77, embody their respective squads. Richardson likes to play music at practices, keeping the mood light while forcing players to focus. His team slings the ball around and puts up huge numbers on the scoreboard. It’s fun.
Oddo, who has the most wins in Mecklenburg County history, coaches much the same way as he did in 1973 when he first arrived at Catholic from East Meck. It’s no secret what the Cougars plan to do on Friday nights: pound the rock. It’s effective.
“We’ve run it a pretty long time,” Oddo said of his club’s wing-t run-focused offense. “We add in new things, tweak it every now and then, but we average over 300 yards rushing a game.”
As different as the two programs and coaches seem, there are similarities.
For one, they’re both successful. Oddo’s teams have won double-digit games in 10 of the last 11 seasons, while Richardson’s group has won 20 games in his first two seasons at the Trojans’ helm and reached the state final last year. They’re disciplinarians who hold their players to high standards, but can have fun when the situation allows. Academics are a shared priority and they both wear ball caps under the Friday night lights.
Richardson could’ve been talking about himself and Oddo when he said, “Our teams are complete opposites, but also very similar.”
The opposite part manifests as two divergent offensive schemes, both propelled by future college football players. Northwestern’s Mason Rudolph, who completed 68 percent of his passes last season and threw for 41 touchdowns, has reached an elite mental level after three seasons in Richardson’s sexy Air Raid. An Oklahoma State commitment, Rudolph has elevated the Trojans’ scoring capabilities in the process.
Five-star Catholic running back Elijah Hood is simply one of the best high school running backs the Charlotte Metro area has ever seen. He ran for 3,308 yards and 48 touchdowns last season, and recently committed to the University of North Carolina after backing out of a pledge to Notre Dame.
Neither team can simulate the opposing side’s offensive stars in practice.
“You can talk ‘til you’re blue in the face, you can show as much film as you want,” Richardson said, “but at the end of the day, we don’t have an Elijah Hood to line up in the backfield and say ‘here’s how it’s gonna come, and here’s how it’s gonna feel like.’”
Oddo doesn’t have a 6-foot-5 freshman on the scout team to wing the ball around Keffer Stadium during practice, or 6-foot-4 basketball players like Northwestern’s Mustafia Love or Quadarius Fair to catch jump-balls.
“We cannot simulate their quarterback,” he said, chuckling. “They are scary good. Their receivers are very fast; if you try to go man, they’ll separate. He’s (Mason Rudolph) an accurate passer. They really do possess some serious problems, and we don’t have the kind of speed to deal with that.”
With an advantage here, an advantage there, what separates the two teams?
“It’s gonna come down to execution,” said Richardson. “Which set of kids execute the best.”
He compared the matchup to Northwestern’s recent postseason scraps with Greenwood. Both teams knew exactly what basic sets the other side planned to run; in 2010, the Trojans were sharper and won the state title. Last December, the Eagles made fewer mistakes and won their state title.
It’s no surprise that controlling the clock will be central to the Cougars’ ground assault.
“That’s a big part of it,” Oddo confirmed.
Present Catholic’s narrow win over Gonzaga last Saturday as evidence. The Cougars’ possessions included an 18-play, 96-yard, nine-minute drive, while Hood alone ran the ball 37 times for 325 yards and rattled off touchdown jaunts of 47 and 63 yards.
“You give people like Gonzaga and Northwestern the ball, they’ll score,” Oddo said. “It’s just a matter of how many times you let them have it, and can you stay ahead of them?”
That’s the question for both teams. Slowing Rudolph looks nigh impossible, especially after he connected on his first 16 pass attempts in a blowout win over Gaffney last week. Stopping Hood, the run-away train straight out of a Bo Jackson video game, seems to be impossible.
At most a flicker in a man and woman’s imaginations when Oddo started coaching, Richardson and his carefully sculpted offensive scheme will be put to the test by the Catholic coach old enough to be his grandfather, and a running back, the likes of whom we’ll likely be telling our grandkids about.
“We’re not idiots,” Richardson said. “Nobody’s stopped (Hood) in his high school career. We have to stay in the football game and find a way to be there in the end, and hopefully outlast them.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T