Central enters its Week 7 matchup against Skyline coming off a bye week following a gritty win over Staunton, its third win in its last four games. The Hawks, meanwhile, limp into tonight's contest having lost three straight games against some of the toughest competition they’ll see all year.
Central, in its homecoming game, will look to continue building on what head coach Mike Yew said was an encouraging effort two weeks ago, while Heath Gilbert’s Hawks are trying ready the ship in time for Class 3 Northwestern District play.
Central and Skyline clashed in Week 1 for the past four seasons but will meet as district foes for the first time since 2008 after the Falcons’ jump from Class 2 to Class 3 and from the Bull Run District to the Northwestern.
“We’ve got to work hard,” Gilbert said of how the Hawks can get back into the win column. “We’ve got to fight in practice to get better. We’ve got to execute at a higher level. We have definitely faced quality teams over the last three weeks but it’s no excuse. If we want to elevate our program, we’ve got to take care of teams like that.”
Losses to James Wood, Handley and Riverheads have dropped Skyline to 2-3 overall after the Hawks started the season 2-0 for the first time since 2012, and they’ll next contend with a Falcons’ squad that has had their number in recent years.
Central has won the past three meetings with the Hawks and all quite comfortably, the last coming by way of a 43-0 drubbing in Front Royal in 2018. The Falcons look almost entirely different after a mass of graduation losses overhauled their roster, but they’re 3-2 entering Friday night and sit in fifth place in the Region 3B playoff rankings, one spot ahead of Skyline.
“I think they’re more reloading. I don’t believe they believe they’re in a rebuild,” Gilbert said of Central. “They’re 3-2 and it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Yew feels that way as well after a gutsy performance two weeks ago in a 14-12 win at Staunton, which the Falcons won despite playing much of the game without a true quarterback after starter Kelan Hoover was ejected (the ejection was later overturned, meaning Hoover will start vs. Skyline) and backup Dylan Hamrick suffered an injury.
A bigger challenge -- in quite the literal sense -- awaits the Falcons on Friday night, though.
“They’re big,” Yew said of the Hawks. “I keep looking at it, I think it’s probably the biggest line we’re gonna see all year. … I look at Skyline’s line and it’s a very imposing line. They have good size and when those guys are on their game, they’re tough. That’s the tell-tale, is can our offensive line get on their guys and make holes and can we fill gaps and create problems for them on their offensive line? Every game, in my opinion, is always won in the trenches. Skill guys make big plays but the game is won up front.”
Skyline certainly has the skill players to do some damage against Central.
Junior receiver Marion Haley is an explosive target for sophomore quarterback Blake Appleton (835 yards passing, 10 touchdowns) and has 33 receptions for 476 yards and eight touchdowns this season after a 14-catch, 124-yard, one-touchdown performance against Riverheads.
Fellow receiver Logan Maiatico (257 yards receiving, 271 rushing) is another big-play threat for the Hawks who showed off his versatility with 168 yards of total offense last week, which included a 60-yard touchdown catch (one of 10 receptions in the game for the junior) and a 52-yard run.
Skyline’s home-run potential falls in line with everything Yew has come to expect from the Hawks.
“I think it looks very typical of Skyline,” Yew said of a Hawks offense that is averaging 29 points and 369.2 yards per game this season. “Heath tries to do a lot of formations. He tries to do a lot of motion, tries to do a lot of pulling. He wants to make the job of the coach preparing for him as miserable as possible, and he’s done a good job of that.”
While Gilbert said the Hawks have already produced more on offense this season than they did during the entire 2018 campaign, he noted that he needs to see everyone on the offense be on the same page for a full 48 minutes against a Central defense that is allowing 13 points per game this fall.
In the case of his own offense, Yew said sustaining drives after relying on a pair of big plays for points the last time out is a top priority for the Falcons.
Central, led by Hoover’s 536 yards passing and four touchdowns and three running backs who have at least 150 yards rushing and two touchdowns apiece, is averaging 26.6 points per game.
The Falcons, like Skyline, have a specific brand of offense that they don’t stray far from, and Gilbert, who noted that the Hawks need to match their opponent’s toughness, said Central’s MO is to “punch us in the face over and over again and see if you can stop it.”
“They’re a tough, physical football team,” said Gilbert, whose team has allowed 42 or more points in four of five games this season. “Obviously when you graduate so many guys, they’re gonna step back a little bit. They have some elite speed and toughness. I study their defensive line and I see a lot of toughness coming right back. I think they play hard and I'm really impressed with those guys. The linebackers are flowing well. I think they have a great plan on offense. The quarterback's a big strong kid that can make plays in their passing game. They complete 9 (fly/go) routes against everybody. … We’ve got to do a good job with our technique and playing sound so hopefully we can try to do our best to get a win on Friday.”