Last week’s Manhattan High game wasn’t exactly the most exciting contest to watch.
A 70-0 win is nothing to shake a stick at, of course.
But once the Indians took a 35-0 lead near the end of the first quarter versus Highland Park, there was a general understanding that the final three quarters merely were a formality.
“It was difficult,” MHS head coach Joe Schartz said. “I didn’t realize that we only ran 19 offensive plays. There were so many times that I had a kid standing right beside me who was going to go in on the next play, and then there was at least four times that happened where there wasn’t a next play — we just scored in one play. It was difficult to get all of the kids extended playing time. The positive was no one got injured and we’re healthy and ready to go for this week.”
Nine different players combined for 10 touchdowns, including five by five Manhattan (3-0) reserve players who received their first taste of varsity action.
“They’re one of the reasons why we’re performing so well on Friday nights,” Schartz said. “We’re getting good looks in practice. I’m happy that they got in, and that’s another step towards them earning a varsity letter.”
The only thing the Indians didn’t win last week was the time of possession battle (which tends to happen when a team has multiple scoring drives of five plays or less), which meant the Indian back-ups on defense played three full quarters and still managed to hold Highland Park to negative-11 yards total while preserving the shutout.
“They really earned it,” senior cornerback and wide receiver Joe Hall said. “That sophomore group and that junior group really give us good looks in practice. They work their butts off, and it was nice for them to have an opportunity to see it pay off in a game. That’s what you work for during the week.”
Now the focus shifts to what, on paper, should be a much more competitive match-up versus Topeka High (1-2). The Trojans are led by 5-foot-9 junior running back Tylan Alejos, who can bruise up the middle with the best of them, but also has the speed to make tacklers miss.
“He’s a physical football player,” Schartz said. “He’s 190 pounds and has good speed. It seems like he always breaks tackles so we’re going to have to get a lot of people to the football. He’s the focal point of their offense along with a good-sized offensive line, so they have the potential to control the line of scrimmage and control the clock with him running the football.”
Alejos has 423 yards rushing so far this season and 74 receiving yards — and that’s with only playing one half versus Junction City. Last week, the junior had all four scores in Topeka’s win over Emporia, including three on the ground.
The Trojans also boast 6-foot-6, 235-pound converted tight end B.J. Canady, who played quarterback for the Trojans as a freshman last season before Topeka High coaches moved the big-bodied sophomore into the trenches and handed off the quarterback duties to junior Peyton Wheat.
“I was impressed with Canady last year as a true freshman,” Schartz said. “He ran the ball well with his size and he threw the ball well, so I was a little bit shocked to see they had moved him over to tight end. But he’s definitely well suited for that job due to his size. We refer to him as the ‘largest sophomore on planet Earth.’”
Topeka’s defense only has laid one egg this season: its weather-shortened 35-0 loss to Junction City. Versus Washburn Rural, the Junior Blues scored 42 points against the T-High defense, two of which came off of blocked punts for touchdowns and one off a fumbled snap. Take those away, and the Trojans only lost that contest 21-13.
Add in a solid road win over Emporia 28-20 last week, and Topeka High’s steady defensive improvement has been on display.
“They’ve shown progress and they’ve continually gotten better,” Schartz said. “I think the pandemic hit Topeka High hard as far as their consistency and schooling, especially in the weight room. They’re getting into better shape and definitely improving.”
The Trojans boast one of the biggest players in the state in 6-foot-3, 375-pound senior nose guard and offensive tackle Danny Saili.
“He’s very quick off the ball and very strong,” Schartz said. “He sets the tone. Junction (City) was able to run the ball on them a little bit, but it was outside with their speed. So nobody has been able to run the ball up the middle against them in between the tackles.”
Canaday, Saili and the rest of the offensive and defensive line will pose a challenge to Indian line that has been a strength on both sides of the ball so far this season. But they are undaunted by the Trojans’ size after experiencing a massive disparity up front versus Garden City to open the season, which they handled without issue.
Part of the success on both the offensive and defensive lines can be attributed to senior Talique Houston (who scored his first touchdown of the year last week).
After three years as a defensive lineman and a power running back, Schartz asked the senior to slide over to left guard to help solidify an inexperienced offensive line just before the start of this season. Houston’s move undoubtedly has been a success for Manhattan, and the physical nature of playing guard has suited a player like Houston, who isn’t one to shy away from contact.
“The adjustment has not been that bad, and day by day, it’s getting better,” Houston said. “Pulling kids on the blindside is fun because (the defense) doesn’t know you’re coming and you can hit them as hard as you want to and not get called for it.”
Meanwhile, Houston and the veteran Manhattan defense continue to be one of the top units in Class 6A, allowing just 9.0 points and 152 yards per game.
“We’ve worked pretty hard the last three weeks,” senior cornerback Zach Hirschey said. “And we also have a lot of chemistry going on, because a lot of the people (on defense) are two-year starters. That really helps a lot with how well we’re doing.”
After a week where starters were lucky if they got to play the entire first quarter, the Indians are pumped to get back on the field and face another challenge.
“There’s some excitement, especially since last week wasn’t the biggest game,” McElvaine said. “This week is a little bit of a step up, so we’re still hungry and seeking that win.”
The Indians and Trojans will kickoff at 7 p.m. at Hummer Park in Topeka.