Knoch-Hopewell appears to be even matchup
When it came to inspiration for the second round of the WPIAL football playoffs, Knoch looked no further than Greater Allegheny Conference opponent Kittanning.
The underdog Wildcats (3-7), seeded 13th in the Class AAA quarterfinals, proved last week there's always hope against Hopewell.
Kittanning took the No. 4 Vikings to overtime before losing 20-14 in a first-round game at Tony Dorsett Stadium.
No. 5 seed Knoch hopes to present a similar challenge to the Vikings, runners-up to West Allegheny in Class AAA last season.
Knoch (9-1) and Hopewell (9-1) will square off 7:30 p.m. Friday at Highlands' Golden Rams Stadium.
"The kids are really hungry," said Knoch coach Mike King, whose team handily defeated Uniontown, 34-7, last week. "Once they saw the Kittanning-Hopewell score, I think the Hopewell mystique kind of faded away.
"Coming into the season, Hopewell was No. 1 for a while. Then they dropped one to New Castle. And they had an injury to the (Paul) Posluszny kid. They were at full strength last week, so I was really impressed with Kittanning. I talked with the kids about that. On any given week <#201> if you have the heart and desire, who knows what might happen."
The game should be a mostly even matchup between teams that return a combined 26 starters from last year. The teams, which have not played one another in over eight years, also have combined for eight shutouts and are allowing an average of 6.1 points per game between them.
Knoch and Hopewell boast two of the top defenses in the WPIAL.
"Kittanning played real well, they got better as the year went on," said Hopewell second-year head coach Dave Vestal. "They did a lot of things well, and we made some mistakes, but we're happy with the win, regardless.
"We tried to get back to fundamentals this week. We worked on trying not to turn the ball over, especially if we get bad weather."
POINTS OF CONCERN
King has two major concerns with the Vikings —their large front line and Paul Posluszny, a bruising 6-3, 215-pound senior running back who is headed to Penn State on a scholarship.
Knoch matches up well with the Vikings in many areas, but both coaches consider Posluszny the X-factor.
"They run quite a few different formations, both power and spread game," King said. "The key is Posluszny, he's their go-to back. We're going to have to know where he is at all times."
Posluszny, who has been hampered by a high ankle sprain, has rushed for 881 yards on 125 carries with 10 touchdowns. He also lines up at inside linebacker, and is among the team leaders in tackles.
Posluszny's status was uncertain at game time last week, but Vestal assures fans his ace player will be on the field Friday.
Posluszny ran for 139 yards on 30 carries against Kittanning.
Hopewell's quarterback is senior Matt Fontana, who has thrown for 508 yards and six touchdowns. He has completed 21 of 59 passes.
The Vikings' top receiver is senior Matt McCrory, who also does the team's kicking.
The Vikings use a 4-4 defense, and run an I-based offense which can stem big plays out of the option.
BALANCE COULD BE KEY
Vestal is impressed with Knoch's balance. He thinks there is a lot more to the Knights than meets the eye.
"Knoch is very balanced and senior-oriented," Vestal said. "They have nice size and speed. They're not real complicated, but they're very good at what they do. They seem to play pretty well as a team."
Knoch opened the passing lanes last week behind junior quarterback Mark Rupert, who has thrown for 1,065 yards and 13 TD.
Rupert has received solid pass protection this season, allowing him to showcase his ability.
The ground game is led by durable running back Dusty Ziacik, who has 1,053 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ziacik ran for 126 yards and three scores last week.
The Knights' delicate balance will be key for the Knights, who have allowed more than seven points once all season.
"We need to try and run the ball, establishing a running game is important," said Knoch senior fullback Kit Durrett. "Our line did an awesome job last week, and Mark was able to pass more. We're a really balanced team with the players we have."
Rupert has spread the ball around, getting dependable receivers Jay Berger, Wes Briggs, Nick Novotny and tight end Matt Koren involved.
Knoch introduced some trickery last week, using a hook-and-lateral play late in the second quarter which gained 14 yards and set up a ZiacikTD run.
"The people that got you here have to step up," King said. "We're coming in healthy, and I like our chances. There are eight quality teams in the playoffs and we're one of them. Let's see what happens."
|Knoch (9-1) vs. Hopewell (9-1)|
Hopewell needs to stop RB Dusty Ziacik, but also keep a close eye on QB Mark Rupert and the passing game. The Vikings must force the Knights to sustain long drives and keep big plays to a minimum. Field position could be crucial for both teams.