CLARION — The road is never an easy place to play, especially when an undefeated foe is your host.
The task will be daunting for the Punxsy Chucks tonight when they face the 7-0 Clarion Bobcats at Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium.
The visiting Chucks, though, are hoping the trend of the short four-year football series between still fairly new Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference opponents continues to hold true. Over the past four years, the visiting team has come out on top, including the Bobcats’ 19-7 victory in Punxsy last fall.
“We have had some real good games (in the series) so far,” says Chucks coach Alan Nichol.
Punxsy claimed back-to-back wins in Clarion in 2010 (35-0) and 2009 (20-6). Clarion started the road trend with a 30-27 win in the 2008 meeting held in Punxsy.
The Chucks look to rebound tonight from last Friday night’s tough loss. Karns City booted a 32-yard field goal with 25 seconds left to pull out a 17-14 win over Punxsy, which ended the Chucks three-game win streak and dropped the team to 4-3 on the year.
“We took from that game a lot in the way of being good teammates when in a tough battle,” explained Nichol. “It was tough as we thought, we were better than that team that night.”
The unblemished Clarion Bobcats stand in Punxsy’s way tonight.
The Bobcats demolished the Bulldogs of Redbank Valley, 49-7, last week.
The victory was Clarion’s fifth time surpassing the 40-point mark in seven contests, and the Bobcats have scored no less than 28 points all fall.
“Our players have practiced hard this week for what will be a great test against one of the better teams in all of western Pennsylvania,” said Nichol. “Clarion is very talented with a lot of seniors.”
The Chucks defense will have to rise to the occasion against the powerful Bobcat attack that features NCAA Division I Old Dominion signee T.J. Armstrong at tailback. The 6-2, 225-pound rusher is just one of three extremely prolific ball carriers along with halfbacks Damien Slike and Camron Kirkland.
“Slike and Kirkland are like half backs running in a Wing-T offense, as Clarion employs multiple offensive sets with a lot of motion,” explains the Punxsy coach. “In their one-back sets, Armstrong is the tailback and runs straight at you.”
The three backs have combined for 1,342 yards, each with over 400 yards, on 176 attempts and 20 touchdowns. Slike has the slight yardage total lead with 470 yards on 52 totes, with Armstrong at his heels with 464 yards on 85 carries and 10 scores. Kirkland has accounted for 408 yards on 39 rushes with four scores. Ian Corbett has also garnered some handoffs with 278 yards on 32 tries and six touchdowns of his own.
“Our number one priority will be tackling in the open field. We have to stop big plays on the ground,” added Nichol. “If they switch to their power game, we have to be able to stop it, as they have the ability to ground it out.”
The Punxsy run defense will have to play a strong contest again tonight. The unit allowed 215 yards on the ground to the run-oriented Karns City offense. Inside linebackers Jamie Bush and Caesar Maruca accounted for 13 of the defense’s 53 tackles on the night.
The defensive line of Brandon Wingert, Daniel McLain, Zach Minich and Luke Shiock will need to be strong as well. Wingert led the group with five stops last week and sits with 25 on the year. McLain had his highest total of four tackles, while Minich had four of his own and Shiock had three.
Junior quarterback John Katis will be the trigger man for the Clarion attack. He has led the unit to an average of 44.7 points per contest. Katis has passed for 819 yards, 117.0-yard per game average, on 41 of 71 attempts with 10 scores and six interceptions.
“Their quarterback has good speed and throws the ball downfield and is not afraid to air it out,” said Nichol.
Katis’ top two targets, junior Cody Heart and Kirkland, have pulled in 30 of his 41 completions for 606 yards. Hearst has 16 of those catches for 363 yards and five scores with Kirkland having 14 balls for 243 yards.
The Punxsy secondary of safeties Garrett Zimmerman and Alex Bevak and cornerbacks Christian Falgout and Clayton Dale will not only have to handle the passing game but also be sure tacklers in run support.
Falgout took down 10 Karns City runners, a team-high for the Punxsy defenders last week. Bevak added five stops, while Zimmerman continues to be the leading tackler for the year with 51.
With a very potent offense, the Clarion defense may very well be equal, if not the better unit. The Bobcat defense has given up only 74 points, 10.6 points per game, and allowed only one opponent, St. Marys which hit 28 points, to produce more than 14.
“Coach Wiser is known for his team’s having staunch defenses and this one is no different,” explained Nichol. “He has a system and his kids execute it to a ‘T’.”
Clarion runs a basic 4-3 defense but has its star and four-year starter Armstrong at the middle linebacker spot. The defensive standout has produced 57 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. He is the main focus in a top-notch linebacking corps that includes Corbett and Tanner Klein.
“The speed of the linebackers is a trademark of their team,” added Nichol. “You never know who’s coming and, when they do, they are fast.”
Corbett leads the unit with six sacks to go with 42 stops. Klein has 31 stops to his credit. Defensive back Slike stands second with 51 tackles and four sacks with Hearst snatching three interceptions from the air.
“We will eventually have to mix it up. We will need to throw the ball as well as we run it,” continued Nichol. “We will have to pick up the blitzes with the blocking of our running backs.”
“Bush is one of the better blocking fullbacks there is at this level. Falgout and Maruca will be a real battle as well.”
Punxsy has been able to mix it up over the past weeks. It was the passing game behind Zimmerman that was the catalyst behind the victory in St. Marys and again helped make the attack balanced in defeating Clarion-Limestone the following week.
Zimmerman threw for only 73 yards last week and has amassed 725 yards to average 103.6 yards per week.
Wideout Dale continues to be his most frequent target with 13 catches for 214 yards. Bevak and Dakotah Byers have pulled in nine and eight passes for a combined 327 yards.
The heart of the Chucks’ offense remains the ground game.
The unit produced 228 yards last week with both Falgout and Bush surpassing the 100-yard mark on the same night for the second time this season.
The backfield duo have now eclipsed 1,000 yards between them at 1,059.
Falgout ran for 113 yards last week and has 589 yards in seven games.
Bush had 104 yards of his own against Karns City and 470 in six games.
“I feel we can rise and play with anyone in our league,” finished Nichol.
For the Chucks to continue the "road warrior" winning trend in the series, they will have to rise tonight and play like they have not played this season, but they are very capable with the confidence-giving head coach directing their energies.