Manhattan was an underdog in the playoffs last season when it played Lawrence-Free State. The Indians were No. 3, and the Firebirds, who were undefeated at the time, were No. 2.
Manhattan crushed Free State 41-19 in a game that concluded with a score closer than what took place.
Tyce Hoover, a senior outside linebacker for the Indians, remembers the game quite well.
“Last year (head) Coach (Joe) Schartz called a really good game,” Hoover said. “That’s probably what stands out the most to me, and it was a big factor to us winning a physical game. I think this year will be a lot of the same: trying to out-physical them and compete.”
The game plan worked well for the Indians in the first half, as the Firebirds only had two first downs and 87 total yards. That came against an offense that had 58 touchdowns and outscored opponents 460-115 entering the game.
But both teams are different now. The Indians don’t have star running back Kevontae McDonald, though BJ Young has been a standout in the backfield. Another development: qaurterback Dayne Aschenbrenner now is a reliable playmaker as opposed to staying afloat his sophomore season in 2018.
But Free State is different, and more explosive now, too, Schartz said.
“We can’t give them easy scores on big plays,” Schartz said. “I think it’s going to be a physical and highly emotional game. So we need to keep our composure, play with our pads and keep our mouths shut. We can’t afford the penalties.”
The game may come down to, as so many do, which team wins the battle up front. It’s the strength of both teams. While Free State has size and disruptive players on its defensive line, Manhattan star offensive lineman Sam Shields is confident.
“We’ve had some guys step up,” Shields said before the team’s practice Tuesday. “Two juniors have stepped up to take a role in the front five. I think we are just as far along as we were last year for this game. A lot of the time, we just try to force them to play our game. If they have one guy who is either fast or strong, we will change a few things and read them, but we mostly focus on us.”
The benefit of the offensive and defensive lines being the most consistently successful areas of the team is what it means during the week, Shields said. Manhattan often does this in practice, Schartz said, where one side will replicate what the upcoming opponent does well to help the other become familiar with those looks. That’s not an uncommon thing for football teams in general, of course, but Manhattan has the benefit of being strong on both sides of the line.
Young, the Indians’ senior running back, is one of the beneficiaries of this.
“I have to break the levels first,” Young said. “You have to get past the first level and if you do that, it’s my job to make one person miss. If I do that, we get a lot of yards and win games.”
Young becomes even more dangerous because of Aschenbrenner’s offensive ascendance.
“It takes some load off of me if I need to play defense that we have someone else to look,” Young said. “That way the other team can’t always just key on me, but have to key on Dayne. He can do the same thing, and can do it better than I can on most nights.”
Manhattan’s 41-19 win was helpful for Schartz in watching film, but rematches in the playoffs don’t mean much to some of his players, Hoover said. Hoover plays a key role in stopping the run game defensively side, especially on plays to the perimeter.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Hoover said. “It’s the playoffs and everybody is good. So it comes down to who can execute and make plays because there’s no more do-overs. That’s what we are going to do.”