Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid hasn't even made it to Heinz Field yet, but he's already delivered an inspirational message to the Knoch Knights, who are trying to get back there.
"All week our linebackers coach has been saying--and I think he got this from him--number one, eliminate distractions. Two, create energy. Three, fear nothing. Four, attack everything," said senior running back Ben Tackett.
Bravado should not be a problem for the Knights (3-1, 4-1), who entertain Franklin Regional (3-1, 4-1) tonight in a Greater Allegheny Conference showdown that reunites two of last year's WPIAL Class AAA Semifinalists, and brings the winner within one game of first place in the section. They're coming off a disappointing effort against conference rival Hampton that left them in the position of having to chase unbeaten Mars.
"One of the biggest things we're taking from that game is anger, and for that matter, intensity," Tackett said. "We did everything in practice with a little more of a sense of urgency, and a little more anger. We've just got to sharpen the knife, and execute that much better."
The Panthers, meanwhile, will bring the same intensity, albeit from a different place in their hearts. Knoch edged Franklin Regional, 9-7, at Valley's Memorial Stadium last November on a late field goal that sent Knoch to the Class AAA Final, which it lost to Montour, for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"It's a game we've thought about all off-season. We printed out a picture of the scoreboard of that game, and it motivated us," said Franklin Regional senior tailback Dane Brown, who led all Class AAA running backs with 34 touchdowns as a junior.
In hindsight, perhaps his team took that one a little too seriously. The Panthers opened the 2012 season with a stumble against the Planets, but they quickly returned to form with four lopsided wins.
"It took that game to re-focus everyone. It was a little bit different for us, without the non-conference games to open the season, so mentally we're better prepared, and now we have a tough game under our belt," Brown said.
Health issues have limited him to 274 yards and two touchdowns, but he's averaging well over seven yards per carry, and head coach Greg Botta has gotten some good work from the rest of his backfield.
"We have a stable of running backs. With them getting more time, we've seen the emergence of Nico Lodovico," Brown said. "We've grown as an offense, and I think it makes us more dangerous. Nico has had sort of a coming-out party this season after being a phenomenal passer throughout his high school career."
For all that Brown can do for the Panthers, Knoch is acutely aware the passing game could be the real x-factor Thursday. The Franklin Regional senior ranks seventh in the classification with 550 passing yards and has thrown for seven TD's.
"They have a couple different sets offensively, but whatever they do, they run it pretty well. From a defensive standpoint, you have to be ready for everything," said Tackett.
Knoch senior Dakota Bruggeman isn't far behind with 530 yards in the air. He's completed only two fewer passes than Lodovico, and has matched his seven touchdown passes through five games.
Last year Tackett was one of his primary targets, but this year Tackett has returned to his natural position, which has been mutually beneficial. He ranks fifth in the classification with 614 yards rushing, and is among the leading scorers in the WPIAL with 12 TD's. Knoch is averaging 32 points per game, though it knows it won't have an easy time defending the Panthers, who have averaged over 33 per game.
"We need to tighten up some pass routes, and work on some steps in the backfield to hit the holes right," Tackett said of his team, which, to its credit, has allowed less than ten points per game this season. "When you play a good team like Franklin Regional, the only way you win is if you pay attention to detail. We have to fly to the ball and play fundamental assignment defense."
Defensively, the Panthers are not lost on fundamentals, either. Botta has taught well his hard-hitting style of football, and Franklin Regional has allowed just ten total points since that Week 1 loss, making it the least scored-upon team in Class AAA entering Week 6.
"Knoch is not going to take themselves out of the game," Brown said. "We need to bring physicality to the game, which has been Coach Botta's message all week."
Kickoff is set for 7:00 P.M. and can be seen live on ROOT Sports, with re-broadcasts to follow at midnight and 3:30 P.M. Friday.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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