The last big test of the 2021 regular season awaits the Manhattan High football team Friday, when a Washburn Rural squad sporting just one loss and lots of talent comes to town.
The Indians (5-0), the No. 4 team in Class 6A in the latest Kpreps.com rankings, have obliterated nearly every opponent they’ve played so far, outscoring opponents by five touchdowns on average while holding them to less than half of their total yards despite running an equal number of plays through five games.
Midway through this season, Manhattan has slightly better than a 2-to-1 turnover ratio and a turnover differential of plus-8.
“I think that’s just the standard that we’ve set for ourselves to achieve,” senior tight end and lineman Trey Holloway said. “We expect that whenever we roll on the field that we’re going to kill people.”
Despite this season’s soggy and delayed road opener at Garden City, no team has looked like they belong on the same field as the Indians.
On paper, Washburn Rural (4-1) could pose a challenge. The Junior Blues’ lone loss came in overtime on the road at Junction City last month. Other than a two-point road win over Pittsburg a week before the Junction City loss, Washburn rolled through the early part of its schedule, dominating the bottom half of the Centennial League.
The Junior Blues will bring a fairly familiar look offensively for those who attended Manhattan’s win over Seaman last week.
They have a talented quarterback in 5-foot-11 sophomore Branton DeWeese, whose dual-threat nature is giving head coach Joe Schartz and his staff pause after some early game struggles with Seaman quarterback Camden Barta’s mobility.
“DeWese is quicker and faster than (Barta),” Schartz said. “He’s not as big and doesn’t have as much power, but his mobility is going to be an issue for us. We just have to make sure that we’re assignment sound and tackle well in space.”
Rural also has several talented playmakers at receiver and an underrated running back, just like Seaman.
Senior wide receiver and safety Robby Bolin is similar to Seaman’s Casen Stallbaumer; he brings more speed, but not be as physical. The Indians shut down Stallbaumer last week, and are hoping to do the same with Bolin on Friday.
“He’s got good hands, good size and good speed,” Schartz said. “He’s not as big as (Stallbaumer), but I think he’s faster. Rural’s wide receivers are just as good, if not better, (than Seaman’s.”
They also have Adrian Tibbetts, a 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver/tight end threat.
Junior Ma’Kenntis Adams is Washburn’s main running threat aside from DeWeese, and while he’s been in-and-out of the lineup with injury this season, he still is more than talented enough to exploit holes left by a defense spread out because of Rural’s air attack.
“Their run game is based on spreading the ball out,” Schartz said. “It’s opportunistic. When you take away the pass, Adams is talented enough to hurt us.”
Defensively, the Junior Blues are stout. They haven’t given up more than 18 points in any game this season; 17 is the most they’ve allowed in regulation.
“Their defense is very fast and very aggressive,” Schartz said. “We know that it’s going to be a battle.”
Bolin and Adams play both ways for Washburn Rural, but the defensive star so far has been senior middle linebacker Austin Fager, who has blocked five kicks so far this season.
“He’s very fast,” Schartz said. “They put pressure on everybody’s kicks. We’ve got to know where he is and prepare for that in practice. If you get a good snap and hold and you’re able to get the ball off in a timely manner, that helps. After that, it just comes down to being aware of specifically where he is and making sure we get him blocked.”
Friday’s game is crucial for both the Centennial League championship race as well as postseason seeding.
Washburn Rural and Junction City both own just one loss with three games to play in the regular season.
An MHS loss to the Junior Blues might result in a three-way tie for the league crown, but Manhattan a win could lock up the championship considering its final two games of the season are against teams that have won a combined two games (Topeka West and Emporia).
If the Indians win out, they would secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“We want to take it one game at a time,” senior cornerback Zach Hirschey said. “We really want to win and we want to go undefeated but we’re not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves. We just need to focus on Washburn.”
Manhattan and the Junior Blues will kickoff Friday’s homecoming matchup at Bishop Stadium at 7 p.m.