For the first time in state history, two games each featuring a pair of defending PIAA champions will take place on the same night tonight.
One is the Class 4A matchup between Aliquippa (defending 4A champ) and Central Valley (defending 3A champ), but the other features Southern Columbia, which looks to keep its chances of defending the 2A crown alive out at Mansion Park in Altoona against District 6 champ, and reigning Class 1A champ Bishop Guilfoyle.
The Tigers (10-3) are coming off one of the most memorable of their 30 district titles — a 48-18 revenge win over Mount Carmel.
Riding the high of such an intense win over its top rival could prime Southern for an emotional letdown spot, but while head coach Jim Roth acknowledged that possibility, he expects his squad to come out refocused on getting one step closer to a potential sixth-straight state title.
“The practices haven’t seemed much different. The Mount Carmel week was definitely intense with everything on the line there,” Roth said. “You might expect a slightly different feel or attitude this week, but the goal from Day 1 has been to win another state title, so we felt like when the postseason started, we were kind of starting over with a clean slate because what you did in the past really doesn’t matter as long as you get in the postseason.
“We’ve played our best football the last two weeks. The way our guys performed up front on both sides of the ball against Mount Carmel was a great sign because we may not see a better line on either side of the ball than what they had, with their size and their experience. The potential of an emotional letdown after a win like that is somewhat of a concern, but hopefully it serves as a source of momentum instead.”
The Mauraders (10-3) enter the state quarterfinal matchup with an identical record, but a much different look — or in this case, looks — on offense.
After starting on his film breakdown last weekend, Roth quickly realized how significant of a challenge his defense will have tonight, as Bishop Guilfoyle features several schemes when it has the ball, varying from an empty-backfield spread look to having as many as three running backs in the backfield at a time.
“They’re as wide-open as any team we’ve played in a long time,” Roth admitted. “They run a little bit of everything. They run a lot of empty sets with no backs, they do a lot of shifting before plays and they run multiple sets. There’s a lot of different looks, so that highlights the importance of us executing on defense and making sure we line up properly in our assignments.”
Heading that complex offense that’s averaging more than 41 points per game is senior quarterback Karson Keisewetter, who’s just as dangerous on the ground as he is through the air.
Not only has Keisewetter accumulated 1,707 yards and 16 touchdowns with his arm, he’s tallied an additional 1,499 yards and a whopping 30 scores with his legs.
Roth’s praise of the opposing gunslinger was as plentiful as a refrigerator is with leftovers the day after Thanksgiving.
“Their quarterback is their best runner. When you have a quarterback that can run like that, it gives you an extra dimension and you essentially have another defender occupied,” said Southern’s coach. “He’s not only a good runner, he’s also a good passer. It’s not that he’s just a running quarterback, he does also throw the ball well and effectively. A lot of times, quarterbacks that run as much as him look to run right after the pocket collapses, but he’ll still look to make a play throwing the ball downfield.
“It might be easier if he would just take off and ran when his protection breaks down, but he’s an athlete and he plays the position with awareness and poise. He may be the best runner that we’ve seen all year when you combine his speed with his elusiveness.”
Keisewetter has distributed the pigskin relatively evenly amongst his targets this season, as five Marauders have at least 200 receiving yards and another has north of 120.
This will task Southern’s secondary with one of — if not its biggest test this year.
Once a glaring weak spot on the team, the Tigers’ defensive backs have since improved, with the SCA defense intercepting three passes in each of its three district playoff games.
While gained experience is definitely a factor for the improvement, Roth also credits the improved play from the defensive front in cracking down on stopping the run, lifting that burden off the secondary some.
“It goes hand and hand. As the front has played better and our run defense improved, our pass defense has improved along with it, and that’s to be expected,” Roth said. “When our run defense was struggling earlier in the year, our secondary had to get involved in coming up and making tackles to help stop the run, which made them susceptible to overlooking the pass at times.”
During last week’s district final, Blake Wise — a junior who is in his first year as a full-time starter — attempted just two passes, one complete for a six-yard loss and one intercepted.
In the middle of the second quarter, he was replaced by senior Tyler Arnold, who didn’t attempt a single pass, but instead ran the ball on five designed keepers for eight yards.
While only attempting one pass this season, an interception in the district semifinal at Troy, Arnold now has 96 rushing yards on 10 carries, one of which resulted in a touchdown.
Roth plans on sticking with Wise as the starter, but also plans to mix in Arnold on a rotation, as he adds more of a running threat than Wise.
“Blake will be in there to start. The reason we did that last game was we got to a point where we knew we weren’t going to be throwing much and we wanted the threat of the quarterback being able to keep the ball and run it to give us another aspect of the running game to keep (Mount Carmel) off-balanced,” Southern’s coach explained. “With that mindset at that point in the game, it just made sense to go with Tyler because he’s a better runner. But we’ll probably do a little more of a rotation this week. When you have two backs running for almost 200 yards each, we’re probably not going to put it in the air a whole lot.”
After playing their last two games on poor surfaces — on a puddle-filled pitch at Troy and a snow-covered gridiron at the Silver Bowl — the Tigers are looking forward to hopefully having a surface that allows for better footing tonight at Mansion Park.
“That should make a difference,” Roth said of what’s expected to be an improved playing surface. “It’s impressive what they were able to do the last two weeks on those surfaces. The snow game wasn’t actually as bad as the week before (at Troy) when there was water laying and it was really wet. The footing was worse there than at Mount Carmel.”