Weekly Briefing: 120th The Game Edition

The 120th Edition of The Game: Episcopal  (3-5) at Woodberry (3-5), 2 p.m.

The Basics: Only a worldwide pandemic has interrupted The Game since its inception back in 1901. World War I nor World War II managed to put a stop to it, but COVID-19 put off the 120th meeting of the two fierce rivals for a year. Now the Tigers and the Maroon finally get to lock up once more and as usual in this clash, everything that has happened before is essentially irrelevant. The Game isn’t like anything else out there, it has a life of its own, seemingly removed from the context of a season. The records? A surefire favorite can get beat in this game any given year and they’re both 3-5 this time around against really challenging schedules. The strategies that worked a week ago? Not relevant, the game is too unpredictable. The gameplan that got installed earlier this week? Is likely to be toast by the middle of the first quarter. The game has an unpredictable magic and chaos to it that makes it a cauldron of heartbreak and myth-making. The stakes itself mean the highest of highs are attainable on every second weekend of November, but that comes with a price — because the lowest of lows are just as possible. There are big-time players in this game as there almost always are, with Woodberry’s Donovan Baker, Conner Lessane, Armel Mukam, Rodney Lora and Landon Ellis among the Tigers’ standouts while Episcopal will bring big quarterback Tahj Smith, lineman Ryan Arenburg and defensive end Alex Manoogian. But often  it’s not the marquee names that turn this one. It’s someone who’s been around the edges all season who steps into the spotlight. The player everyone has to check the program for that makes that one huge play that turns it. An unsung hero forged in a unique setting in a unique game in a unique rivalry. Who’ll emerge from the cauldron this season as the unlikely star and lift his team, school and community to victory? Finding that out is one reason thousands will descend on the Forest this Saturday. 

Key Matchup: Episcopal’s offensive line takes on Woodberry’s dynamic defensive front. With Rodney Lora’s return and Armel Mukam’s elite athleticism starting to make a major impact, The Maroon’s stout offensive line is going to have its hands full. If Lora is disruptive in the middle it could speed up the passing game and create some rhythm problems for Episcopal quarterback Tahj Smith who has thrived off play action lately. That’ll require Mukam and the rest of the front seven to set the edge and not open up escape lanes for Smith to move and attack downfield. 

Who to Watch: Woodberry’s Harley Shuford to Landon Ellis combination. While Donovan Baker sets the rhythm and heartbeat of the offense for the Tigers, it’s likely going to be critical that Woodberry get Shuford to Ellis going. The former roommates have been clicking since Ellis got healthy back in early October, and throwing the ball around a little will open things up for Baker too. Shuford has a tall task ahead of him in his first start in The Game and you can bet that he’ll look to Ellis, his speedy, precise route running friend to try and get into a rhythm early. 

The Line: Woodberry by 1. Episcopal has won three straight, but the Tigers have had to think about this one for awhile and haven’t won since 2016. Expect them to be ready.