By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline finds itself as one of the few teams this postseason preparing for a rematch, as the Hawks are set to travel to Kettle Run for the opening round of the Class 3A East playoffs tonight.
The problem is, the Cougars blanked the Hawks in a 35-0 rout at Skyline in the teams' first meeting this season back on Sept. 27. Something will obviously have to change if No. 12 Skyline hopes to upset the fifth-seeded Cougars in tonight's contest, which is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
"Our goal is to be better than we were last time. We don't want to get beat 35-0, so what can we do to be better and just show that we've improved?" Hawks coach Heath Gilbert said on Tuesday. "We don't want to end our season with a demoralizing loss."
Skyline (4-6), which has lost five of its last six games, is in a unique situation in that the Hawks are coming off a bye week that happened to land on the final week of the regular season. Conventional thinking would suggest the extra week of preparation would benefit the Hawks -- except that Skyline had no idea who it would be preparing for until this weekend.
"I didn't like it necessarily," Gilbert said. "We didn't know who we were prepping for. I'd like to have a bye week to have an advantage, to study for somebody and prepare for somebody, and we didn't have that."
One bright spot stemming from the bye week for the Hawks is that it allowed players to rest up and heal. The extra time off was particularly beneficial for sophomore quarterback Corban Ruch, who has fully recovered from a concussion and will play tonight. However, the Hawks may still be a little short-handed, as there is a good chance that senior receiver/defensive back Marcus Turner (wrist) will be unavailable.
Turner's possible absence is particularly concerning for Skyline, which managed just 67 total yards against Kettle Run's defense in their first meeting.
Gilbert said the Cougars (6-4) used a cover zero defense -- meaning no deep safety help -- the first time around, which allowed Kettle Run to crowd the line of scrimmage. The Hawks managed just 11 rushing yards on 21 carries.
"You've got to try to use formations to try to balance them up to hopefully give you a shot to be successful," Gilbert said. "Just going back over the film -- which is good for the kids to see the mistakes we made, what we weren't doing correctly -- hopefully we can be more physical to give ourselves a chance."
Skyline junior running back/quarterback Jerrius Baltimore, who missed the Hawks' first meeting against Kettle Run due to an ankle injury, should provide the Hawks with some extra firepower in the running game the second time around.
Baltimore said the Hawks need to be able to spread Kettle Run's defense out, which may be more challenging if Turner (team-high 31 catches, 470 yards) is unavailable in the passing game.
"Hopefully this week we can get some more open runs to open up the pass game a little bit," said Baltimore, who has a team-high 1,014 yards and six touchdowns on 172 carries this season. "Hopefully we spread them out a little bit with our spread offense and get some reads in there. Hopefully that will open it up."
On defense, Skyline will have to figure out a way to limit Kettle Run's offense, which is something that the Hawks failed to do in their first meeting.
Cougars senior running back De Jackson (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) ran for 87 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries against Skyline, while junior quarterback Denzel Champion threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns on just seven completions. Champion hooked up with junior wide receiver David Eldridge (four catches, 129 yards) on scoring passes of 32 and 56 yards in the first quarter against the Hawks.
"We are doing some things differently on defense. We're going through a little philosophy change in how we're attacking these spread teams. We'll see if that makes a difference," Gilbert said. "What we're doing is not working, and one of the things is we're maybe not quite as athletic as we've been ... so we're trying to do something."
Whether those changes lead will lead to a different outcome remains to be seen, but the Hawks are fortunate to have another crack at the Cougars this season.
"I'm glad we get the chance to play them again so that we can show them that the first game was just a fluke," Hawks junior linebacker Darryl Jordan said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com