Joe Schartz and Manhattan High already have defeated Lawrence Free State in the last year. The Indians handled business against the Firebirds in a 41-19 win on Nov. 11, 2018, but Free State is better now, Schartz said.

“We’ve looked at a lot of film, including last year’s game with ourselves,” Schartz said. “As far as I can tell, I think they have improved this year, especially up front with their offensive line and defensive line, so they are going to be a quality opponent.”

The first thing about Free State that Schartz talked about Tuesday before his team’s practice at Bishop Stadium was quarterback play. The Firebirds already have used three different quarterbacks during the season. One of them now plays safety and receiver. The current starter is Malik Berry, and sometimes Jet Dineen takes some of the pressure of Berry’s shoulders.

Another player the Indians have to look out for, Schartz said, is running back Tyler Bowden.

“He is the beneficiary of a good offensive line,” Schartz said. “He is a good runner, and it will be hard to stop him. He plays very hard.”

Free State is a similar team to Manhattan, and both team’s seasons developed into near-mirror images. Free State also lost its second game of the season in a 26-17 loss to Olathe East. Schartz chalked that up to the Firebirds figuring out personnel.

The Indians have played several teams close in strategy to their own, focusing on running the football and controlling the line of scrimmage.

Because of this, Schartz has a pretty good idea of a few things the Indians have to do to survive the game Friday night.

“We need to control the clock and help our defense by keeping the ball out of their offense’s hands,” Schartz said. “So time of possession is crucial for us. We need to obviously be able to run the football, and when those moments occur where we need to make a play in the passing game, we have to execute. If we don’t, we don’t mix it up and it’ll be difficult to move the ball.”

Mixing it up actually is something the Indians have done effectively in its past few big games. Of course the offense runs, and will continue to run, through the strength of the offensive line and explosive players like Dayne Aschenbrenner and BJ Young, but the biggest plays, and drives, included different looks.

The most recent time Schartz went into his bag was right before the half against Hutchinson last Friday. Hutch deferred the opening kickoff, so Schartz wanted another score right before intermission. The Indians drove 65 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes.

Most notably, the Indians used a shotgun formation for five consecutive plays, a look they hadn’t given anyone yet this season.

“The good coaches out there have the chalk and chalkboard,” Schartz said. “You have to put in something a little bit different every week and try to keep the other team off-balance as much as possible. As far as that drive goes before half, it was key for us because they were going to get the opening kickoff in the second half. We saved all our timeouts because we didn’t have a lack of communication or anything like that, too.”

Manhattan hasn’t had a problem with turnovers recent weeks, either.

Schartz said the team didn’t start the season well in that area, but he knocked on the wood bench in the team’s locker room at Bishop Stadium before finishing his thought.

“But we’ve done a better job of protecting the ball and forcing turnovers,” Schartz said.

Players getting nervous for big playoff games isn’t much of a concern for Schartz, he said. Those things typically work themselves out.

His players are used to handling big-game pressure by now.

“I think each individual is different with nerves,” Schartz said. “I’m nervous for every game no matter who the opponent is. Most competitors, every Friday night, are pretty intense emotionally, and once you get into the game you settle in and those butterflies go away.”