It may be hard to believe, but 30 days from tonight is the opening night of high school football season locally. The 2016 season turned out to be a pretty successful one on the whole for our local teams as Farrell and Wilmington reached the state semifinals and Hickory also advanced to the PIAA playoffs. A number of other squads had notable seasons and numerous players posted great individual seasons.

Prior to last year, no Mercer County team had ever thrown 30 touchdown passes in a season. But Grove City (33) and Sharon (32) both surpassed that standard. Grove City averaged 229 passing yards per game and nearly 408 offensive yards per game on its way to a 10-win season.

Hickory averaged 43 points per game and finished as the only area team to average over 200 yards per game rushing and over 100 passing yards per game. Suffice to say, there were plenty of offensive highlights last season.

Farrell, Hickory and Wilmington all won District 10 titles last season. What team led the area in scoring defense? Wilmington, at 11.7 points per game. Who ranked second? Hickory (15.8). Farrell ranked No. 3 at 15.9 points per game allowed.

"Run the ball and stop the run" has long been an adage for successful football teams at all levels over the years. In 2016, Wilmington led the area in yards per game (261.4) and yards per carry (8.0) on offense. Defensively, Wilmington allowed a county-low 119.0 yards per game as well as a 3.8 yards-per-carry average, also the area's best. Despite the growth of spread offenses and a significant increase in passing, rushing offense and defense is as important as ever.

Last year, area players combined for 56 return touchdowns between kickoffs, punts, interceptions and fumbles. Over 10 percent of the 531 touchdowns scored locally came on defense or special teams. Tight playoff games, one-sided regular season games and everything in between seemed to all have at least one non-offensive touchdown scored.

Ten times last year, a return touchdown earned the Lock, Stock and Barrel Play of the Game award on either 790 WPIC or Sports Radio 96.7. Out of 42 games, that's almost one out of every four games.

Will we see such a bevy of return scores in 2017? It's possible - and here's why:
1-Teams pass more. So more chances for interceptions.
2-Teams pass more. So more chances for touchdowns. Which lead to more kickoffs.
3-Teams pass more. Teams run more offensive plays, which means more opportunity to fumble.
4-Teams pass more. An incomplete pass means that there's a greater chance of a team being in 3rd and long. Which means more punts.
5-More artificial turf. While that probably cuts the number of fumbles due to less moisture and mud, it also means better footing for a long return. The player with the ball in his hands can cut back and doesn't have to tip-toe as much as he would on a muddy track.
6-A change in mindset over the course of time. Defenses want players thinking "score" instead of just falling on the ball. Additionally, teams pass more. So to account for more three-, four- and five-receiver sets, defenses have more linebackers and defensive backs on the field -- a.k.a "fast guys."

Turnover margin is also an important stat in all levels of football. Take a look at NCAA FBS turnover margin from 2016. With the exception of Kent State, which somehow went 3-9 despite being plus-11 for the season, you'll note that the top 10 teams in that category all had very fine seasons. In the NFL, the top two teams in turnover margin in 2016 both went 12-4. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams met in the Super Bowl.

Locally, Wilmington finished the season plus-21 in turnover margin while Sharon finished at plus-18. Grove City finished plus-16 while Hickory ended up plus-13, turning over the ball only 10 times.

You are probably wondering "Where are all of these local stats coming from?" Recently, I went through and input basic details from every game last year (combined with the ones I called/worked) and generated a report, thanks to software that's related to the in-game software I use for live stats.

The 2016 Mercer County stats are available here.

Now, some reminders/guidelines to remember when reading through them:
1-They're not perfect. A lot of information isn't readily available. What I aimed to do was to get as much of the basic information accumulated: rushing, passing, scoring, receiving. I pulled box scores from The Herald,, the Butler Eagle and

You would think the numbers from those sites would match up or at least be pretty close. Usually, they do. But there were some exceptions. One that really stands out is one outlet listing a quarterback with eight rushes for minus-38 yards in a particular game (sacks count as rushing yards lost in high school and college). Another outlet listed the same player with nine attempts for minus-19 yards.

That will also explain why a total that I have may differ from something you read in another media outlet. The numbers will be very close - it's not a case of me having a player with 750 rushing yards and another outlet listing him with 812.

2-The stats are not complete for the games I did not work. There's really no way to get time of possession on every game, for example. With the "mercy rule," time of possession can be skewed anyway. Things such as third down conversions, punting, etc. -- they are very difficult to reconstruct for every game.

So some of the stuff on the team stat pages is not going to be totally correct. They're missing some interceptions, among many other things. Some games did not have penalties and yards listed. Others didn't have first downs. Why? I don't know why those very basic stats were missing. But they were.

3-This year, I plan to update the statistics weekly throughout the season. Doing it weekly, I'll have more time to comb through to try to have accurate count on things such as interceptions, team penalties, etc. Again, they will not be perfect. But I do think that people will enjoy them and they'll be pretty helpful to fans and media.

I think people will find it interesting to see who has the top rushing defense or leads the area in turnover margin. These are relevant stats, not a bunch of extraneous poppycock or figures that require working knowledge of Calculus II.

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