Tigers can't discount Northern Tier champs

Nov. 17—There is a laundry list of things that concern Jim Roth about tonight's trip to face Troy for the District 4 Class 2A championship at Alparon Park at the Troy Fairgrounds.

Obviously, the undefeated Trojans' performance on the field is the biggest one. It's been nearly a month since Troy has given up a point, and the Trojans average nearly 48 points per game on offense.

However, close behind that factor is the atmosphere at the Trojans' home field.

With a name like Jim Smith and his occupation — football coach — the Troy mentor isn't one for hyperbole.

"This is possibly the biggest game in school history," said Smith, whose team is looking for its first district title since the 2013 team traveled to Danville to beat the Ironmen. "I think the kids know this one is do-or-die; they'll play with a lot of emotion and excitement. We've been pointing to this game (the whole season), to the point where we might have looked past some teams.

"I don't think we've played our best football, yet."

"I don't think there is any doubt they are looking at this game like that," Roth said. "I'm sure their approach or thought is if they can knock us off (tonight), they can make a deep state playoff run, and even win a state title."

Roth noted that this isn't a stereotypical Northern Tier football team. A Northern Tier team has won just three district championships above Class A this century — Wyalusing in 2001, Athens in 2004 and the 2013 Troy squad — and just six overall since the start of district football playoffs in 1986.

"In this district, we tend to assume that the Northern Tier is overrated, but this is a real good football team," Roth said. "They throw the ball better. They are a year older.

"You can't make an assumption that this isn't a real good football team. We are going to have our hands full."

The Trojans (12-0) have a balanced running attack. They've run for 3,045 yards (8.3 yards per carry) this season, but leading rusher Bryce Gilliland has just 608 yards and four touchdowns. Ten different Trojans have at least 10 attempts and 100 yards this season, a tribute to their offensive line.

"I think a huge key is going to be if our defensive line can control their running game.," Roth said. "Even the better teams they have played haven't been able to do that. If we can (stop their running game), not only does it obviously put us in a better position to win, but I think it would be a mental thing, as well. Nobody has been able to put any doubt in their mind."

Though the rushing numbers are impressive, the Tigers can't sleep on Troy's passing game. Evan Woodward has completed 76 percent of his passes while doubling his attempts (and nearly quadrupling his completions) from a season ago. He's the first Troy quarterback to top 1,000 yards since 2011. He's thrown for 1,353 yards with 22 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He threw just five touchdowns and five interceptions last season.

"They want to attack you with a power running game, but their skill position players are much improved this season," Roth said. "They run (Woodward) on designed plays, and he can get the ball downfield. He's a lot like (Mount Carmel quarterback) Cole Spears — very similar, very mobile like him. We were able to get some pressure and contain Spears in the pocket last week, and hopefully we can do the same this week."

The Tigers' Isaac Carter led the way with four sacks last week, and he leads the team with eight sacks on the season. Dominic Fetterolf leads Southern with 85 tackles, while Garrett Garcia is second in both tackles and tackles for a loss (12). Carter leads the team in tackles for a loss with 15.

Roth might have to move some pieces on a defense that shut out Mount Carmel last week after giving up 42 points and 511 yards of total offense to the Red Tornadoes during the regular season, by far Southern's worst performance.

Garcia is a game-time decision after leaving last week's game with a right leg injury. Colden Bloom would drop back from defensive end to inside linebacker, a spot Bloom plans to play in college and played last season when Wes Barnes missed time with an injury. Junior two-way lineman Jude Bremigen would move into a starting spot up front. He has six tackles and a half-sack in a backup defensive role.

If Garcia is unable to go tonight, his absence might be felt more on the offensive end, which is kind of a shocking statement for a player who set a school record with more than 200 tackles as a sophomore and didn't play any offensive role before his senior season.

Garcia is the team's leading rusher with 1,207 yards and 22 touchdowns, and, according to Roth, his punishing style sets a tone for his offense.

"We can't get away from some fullback runs we do, though," said Roth. "A lot of things we do with the halfbacks are based on some of the fullback runs."

Jack Biermass (11 carries, 137 yards) would move into Garcia's role. He filled in for Barnes last season, as well.

Roth knows none of the statistical stuff matters, though, if the Tigers aren't prepared for Troy's intensity. The Southern Columbia players are coming off the high of avenging a rivalry loss to Mount Carmel.

"If you don't think attitude and emotion to play into it, then explain how we can give up 42 points to Mount Carmel and less than a month later shut them out," Roth said. "We have to find a way to get that back (against Troy)."

That might be the biggest obstacle (besides the Trojans) standing in the Tigers' way of a seventh straight Class 2A state title: Can they reach the level of last week's performance at a consistent basis over the next four weeks?

"You just rely on your senior leadership to realize nobody's going to remember (the rest of the season) — it's how you finish," Roth said. "They have to provide the spark on the field and in the locker room."

One positive for the Tigers is they made the trip to Troy last season.

"I'm glad this isn't the first time this group is making this trip," said Roth, whose team forced seven turnovers in its semifinal victory last year. "It's a little bit of a culture shock because the facility isn't great, but we know what we are getting into there."

The winner of tonight's game will host a PIAA quarterfinal at a District 4 site against the District 6 champion. Richland (11-1) faces Bald Eagle Area (11-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mansion Park in Altoona.