By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline learned a lot from its only loss of the season, a 28-6 defeat at the hands of the Kettle Run Cougars way back on Sept. 28.
The Hawks had rolled into that match-up averaging nearly 35 points per game through four contests behind a powerful offensive attack. But the Cougars, last year's Region II, Division 3 champions, kept Skyline out of the end zone. Even worse for the Hawks, their offense managed just 36 total yards.
Skyline has had plenty of time to work out the kinks that Kettle Run exposed in the teams' first meeting, and the Hawks are set for round two with the No. 4 Cougars tonight in the Region II, Division 3 semifinals.
"They not only beat us [on Sept. 28], they dominated us on offense. We have a lot of pride in our offense and the things that we're able to do. To be perfectly honest, my game plan wasn't very good," said Hawks coach Heath Gilbert. "I thought we were going to be able to do some things and we should've played our football. What's nice is now we know who we are, we know what we're best at."
Skyline (10-1) certainly bounced back nicely since that early-season letdown in Nokesville. The Hawks have won six straight games, the longest winning streak in school history, and have won both their first outright Northwestern District title and first playoff game during that span.
Last week, top-seeded Skyline hammered No. 8 Loudoun Valley 43-6 at home in the first round of the regional playoffs. The Hawks gained nearly 400 yards of total offense in that game, including 325 yards on the ground.
During Skyline's winning streak, the Hawks are averaging 38.8 points per game. That number looks nice, but the Hawks remember all too well what happened the first time they clashed with the Cougars.
"Our offense has been looking good for the past couple weeks. But of course, it looked good four weeks into the season and then we met Kettle Run," said Hawks senior linebacker and leading tackler Zack Blair. "If we can get going on offense, then that lets everyone get hot and lets our defense stay fresh on the sideline and come in whenever we are needed."
Skyline's defense was forced to defend a short field multiple times in that first meeting due to the Hawks' lack of offense, and the key tonight will be whether or not the Hawks can sustain drives against a physical Kettle Run (9-2) defensive front. The Cougars are allowing just 9 points per game this season.
In order for Skyline control the ball, Gilbert said the Hawks need to play the "kind of football that we play."
"We're run-based anyway, but we need to run the ball the way we run it. And that's where my biggest mistake was last time," Gilbert said. "I thought we were going to be able to do some things against a very talented defense. I thought that we could challenge them a little bit and it backfired."
Skyline won't need to change a whole lot defensively for the rematch, as the Hawks have been solid against the run game all season. Another strong defensive effort will be needed to slow down Kettle Run's rushing attack.
Senior running back Josh Tapscott leads the Cougars this season with 991 yards rushing to go along with 12 scores. Against Skyline, Tapscott ran for 114 yards, and he is coming off an 83-yard performance in a 24-21 win over Warren County last week.
Last Friday was Tapscott's first game back from a knee sprain that forced him to miss two games.
Tapscott is not the only threat in the Cougars' backfield. Carlos Vegerano is a dangerous runner from the quarterback spot, and junior De Jackson, who shouldered most of the load for Kettle Run in Tapscott's absence, has 975 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
Skyline is preparing to see a few new formations from Kettle Run's offense. Last week against Warren County, the Cougars showed a lot of three wide receiver formations, and Tapscott and Jackson both saw time as a wide receiver in the slot.
"First we have to stop their two-headed monster at running back. Tapscott is very powerful, and so is Jackson," Hawks senior Dayvon Haight said. "Their quarterback, he's been throwing the ball really well and he's very quick. As a defense we're going to have to play really well all the way around."
One advantage that Skyline will have tonight will be the benefit of home field, where the Hawks are 6-0 this season.
Gilbert said the loss in late September opened the eyes of both the players and the Hawks' coaching staff, and Skyline is determined to not let history repeat itself.
"They came in 4-0 and they played us on their Homecoming night [on Sept. 28], and we were 4-0 and thought we were hot stuff," Blair said. "They opened our eyes a little bit. We get them on our home turf this time and we're undefeated at home, so hopefully that home-field advantage sticks."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com