At Manhattan High, defense comes first.
Head coach Joe Schartz has always put his emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. On Friday night, it showed in a 21-0 win over Washburn Rural on senior night.
“The kids executed a great game,” Schartz said. “I couldn’t be happier with the defensive side of the ball.”
Manhattan held Rural to just 145 yards of offense, 63 in the first half. Rural didn’t get a first down until the second quarter. It was that kind of night for an Indian defense that has been strong all year against the run, but hadn’t put up a dominating night like this since back-to-back weeks against overmatched Highland Park and Topeka West.
But the Manhattan offense struggled early as well, with quarterback Jacob Holloway throwing a pair of first-half interceptions in Washburn Rural territory. Holloway did connect with Bret Fehr for an 18-yard touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter to give Manhattan the lead.
The score would remain the same until the fourth quarter, when Holloway broke free for a 41-yard run. Josh Mullin scored three plays later for a 14-0 lead. Manhattan made it a three-score game in the final minute on a 25-yard touchdown run by Darian Taylor after Rural turned the ball over on downs trying to score in the passing game.
The Junior Blues juggled two quarterbacks throughout the game, Blake Peterson and Michael Singer, with neither having much success. Peterson was able to get some yards late, but gave much of them back on big sacks by the Manhattan defensive line.
“It was real important at the end of the game when they had to throw the ball for us to get pressure with our defensive line and not have to blitz,” Schartz said. “That was crucial. The defensive line stepped up.”
Peterson finished with 73 yards, with Singer adding 15. On the ground, Rural finished with just 57 yards on 30 carries. Needless to say, it was quite the night for a defense with plenty of seniors.
“It was a special night,” Schartz said. “This is our last guaranteed home game here at Bishop Stadium. This is a special place, a lot of tradition, a lot of good football has been played here over the years. The seniors, they made their stamp on the program and they’re a big part of that tradition.”
For Manhattan, gaining yards was easy, it was scoring touchdowns that proved to be a problem. Holloway finished with a game-high 131 yards on the ground and 63 yards and a touchdown through the air. Taylor chipped in 122 yards. Winston Dimel was the top target in the passing game, hauling in three passes for 33 yards.
But it was that same passing game that kept this game unnecessarily close much of the night.
Holloway was great on the ground, but struggled with accuracy much of the night throwing the ball. He finished 6 of 17 with two interceptions, one on a tipped ball thrown into tight coverage and another thrown directly to Rural’s Nathan Mikoleit.
“We had some things in the passing game where the timing was just off tonight,” Schartz said. “That hasn’t been the case in the past weeks. We had to find some things to do on the ground, and we finally broke loose in the fourth quarter.”
Rural found itself in scoring position only once, aided by a late hit penalty on the Indians after a 22-yard run by Peterson, incidentally the longest of the night for the Junior Blues.
But Rural squandered that chance, turning the ball over on downs in Manhattan territory.
Manhattan’s playoff hopes are in its own hands next week against Junction City. If they win, or lose by less than 13 points, they are assured of a playoff berth. Lose by more than 13 in the final regular-season game, combined with a win by Topeka High over Washburn Rural, and the three top teams would be subject to a laundry list of tiebreakers to determine who moves on to the playoffs.
Winning, of course, solves everything.
“It’s a big game,” he said. “Our kids know this is a big game, it’s a rivalry game. My hope for them is they keep their focus this week and prepare well for a quality opponent.”
The battle for the Silver Trophy is set to kick off in Junction City at 7 p.m. on Friday.