ROYERSFORD >> Pope John Paul II entered the 2016 season winners of three games in the past four seasons.
Yet belief stayed high in Royersford throughout camp and as the team was mired in an 0-3 start.
Now, three wins in the past four games have the Golden Panthers still in contention for a PAC Frontier title as the team travels to Red Hill to face Upper Perkiomen Friday night in a must-win tilt for both teams in order to keep their PAC Championship hopes alive.
“This is what high school football is all about, playing in big games on Friday night,” PJP senior linebacker Nick Yerger said. “It’s the best.”
“It feels good to play meaningful football in October,” PJP head coach Rory Graver said. “The kids will be excited and up to the task to play Upper Perk.”
It’s not hard to determine why the Golden Panthers come in winners of three of their last four. Defense. Led by linebackers Yerger — who returned for his senior season after sitting out his junior season due to a torn ACL — and Chis Haffey (also missed chunk of last season to a torn ACL), linemen AJ Dejewski, Denver Francis, Nick Galbraith and versatile Sean Brennan among others, the Golden Panther defense enters Week 8 ranked second in the league in total defense (206 yards per game).
In their three wins, the defense allowed 14 or fewer points, highlighted by a 33-0 shutout against Schuylkill Valley in Week 4 that snapped a 21-game losing streak.
“Our defensive coordinator Tony Yerger does a really great job in getting them to believe in themselves and instilling confidence,” Graver said. “These kids are confident and it’s really helping them out. Last year we started off strong but taking some of those losses really hurt our confidence.”
“We’re not the biggest, but we have a lot of guys playing with a lot more heart,” Yerger said. “We’re more determined and more physical because of it.”
Upper Perkiomen, however, brings a challenge that the PJP defense hasn’t seen in any game this season: a run-pass balanced offense.
Senior quarterback Zeke Hallman enters the game third in the PAC in passing yards (1,223) and second in passing touchdowns (17). Nearly half of his passing yards (637) came in the team’s first three games, as he and leading receivers Ryan Kendra (33 receptions for 568 yards) and Tyler Keyser (16 receptions for 254 yards) have been supplemented with the ground efforts of junior tailback Tyler Whary, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in two of the past three games.
It’s by far the best offense PJP has faced this season (Upper Perkiomen ranks No. 3 in the PAC in total offense) and the most versatile. PJP’s three consecutive wins all came against teams that rely heavily on the run to set up the passing attack (Phoenixville) or are run-heavy schematically (Schuylkill Valley, Pottstown).
Upper Perk is none of that. The Indians will run to set up the play-action, pass to set up the draw, line up under center, spread it out and go shotgun. They’ll do a little bit of everything.
Are Yerger and the defense ready? They think so.
“We’re definitely ready for it,” Yerger said. “The past couple of games we’ve been playing against real run-heavy offenses. We’ve been running a little more coverage drills during practice, some more 7-on-7 work. They definitely have a lot of threats that we need to contain.”
Both teams come into Week 8 reeling from losses in divisional play. Upper Perkiomen had the wheels fall off as the Tribe allowed 60 points to the Falcons for the fifth time in 13 seasons, falling 62-21. PJP, coupled with a stagnant offense and some unlucky bounces on special teams, was outscored by Upper Merion 17-7 in the fourth quarter to take a 24-21 loss.
“We came out scared to be quite honest,” Whary said. “I feel like we had no self esteem even though we should have. We couldn’t tackle that game. Everything on defense went wrong for us.
“It was a big loss for us. I think we’re going to come back out with a lot of energy this week. Our team knows it’s a must win. We’re going to come out with that energy.”
PJP’s run game finally stalled in the loss to Upper Merion as the team finished with 25 yards rushing. Offset ‘I’ is still wreaking havoc on opposing defenses, as wide receiver screens and slip screens have been lethal in the team’s three wins.
PAC Playoff Scenarios
All eyes are on Pottsgrove the next two weeks. PJP stays alive with a win and is eliminated from Frontier contention with a loss and Pottsgrove victory over Phoenixville. Upper Perk needs to win out and have the Falcons drop their next two games to clinch.
Upper Perk’s third-ranked offense goes up against PJP’s second-ranked defense Friday, which is good news for PJP based on recent history of No. 1 defenses vs. No. 1 offenses. Through the past four seasons, each of the teams with the top-rated defense topped the team with the No. 1 rated offense. Spring-Ford defeated Perkiomen Valley last season 28-14; Pottsgrove edged Spring-Ford 35-29 in 2014; Perkiomen Valley defeated Boyertown 48-6 in 2013; Pottsgrove defeated Perkiomen Valley 42-28 in 2012.
Prediction >> Upper Perkiomen 28-21.
Now a Look at Week 8:
Rams Hungry to Bounce Back
You know who hasn’t lost two straight games since 2009? That’d be Spring-Ford. The Rams (2-1 PAC, 5-2 overall) will look to add another year to that streak after falling to Perkiomen Valley 28-16 last week as they visit Boyertown Friday night at 7 p.m.
In the past five years, the Rams have faced Boyertown (1-2, 2-5) twice after losing the week prior. The Rams are 2-0 in those results, topping the Bears by a combined margin of 86-29.
Prediction >> Spring-Ford 42-14.
Vikings Look to Clinch PAC Liberty
A win Friday night will clinch the PAC Liberty for Perkiomen Valley (3-0, 7-0), which is looking for its second PAC title in three seasons. Senior quarterback Stephen Sturm is 80 yards away from eclipsing 2,000 yards passing for the third consecutive season.
Norristown (0-3, 0-7) is off to its worst start since the team went 0-11 in 2013.
Prediciton >> Perkiomen Valley 45-12.
Faison Going for 1,000
Pottsgrove’s Rahsul Faison enters Friday night 77 rushing yards shy of 1,000 as the Falcons (3-0, 5-2) host Phoenixville (1-2, 3-4) Friday in aims of solidifying their grasp on the Frontier Division.
A Falcons win paired with a PJP loss will clinch the division.
Phoenixville senior running back Matt Garcia has rushed for more than 100 yards in six of his seven games. Pottsgrove has only allowed a 100-yard rusher twice this season, both in losses (Calil Wortham 125 yards in Week 1 loss to West Catholic; Quadir Gibson 142 yards in Week 4 loss to Glen Mills).
Prediction >> Pottsgrove 35-13.
Pottstown Seeking First League Win
The Trojans (0-3, 1-6) haven’t finished a season without a league win since 2006. They’ll have a chance the next two weeks to grab the elusive victory when they travel to Upper Merion (1-2, 2-5) Friday night.
Upper Merion is coming off a 24-21 victory over Pope John Paul II.
The game pits two of the league’s least productive offenses. Upper Merion comes in 10th averaging 184.3 ypg; Pottstown 11th at 183.4.
Prediction >> Upper Merion 20-13.
Duliakas Breaking Through
OJR’s Nick Duliakas will look to continue wreaking havoc in the backfield as the lineman comes into Friday’s matchup with Methacton (1-2, 1-6) with 13.5 sacks, three coming in last week’s shutout victory over Boyertown.
The Warriors are coming off their first victory of the season and look to snap a two-game skid to OJR (2-1, 4-3).
Prediction >> Owen J. Roberts 21-7
Daniel Boone Looks to Make it Two Straight
The Blazers (2-1 Berks 1, 3-3 overall) are looking for their second consecutive victory for the second time this season. They’ll host a Red Knights with revenge on their mind as Reading handed the Blazers their worst loss since 2013 in a 61-7 trouncing.
Prediction >> Reading 35-28.
Hill Tries to Stop Hun
The Hun School (1-0 MAPL, 4-0 overall) has won 17 straight games and hasn’t been tested by a MAPL opponent since falling to Peddie 21-20 in 2013. Since then, the Raiders have run roughshod over league opponents with an average margin victory of 38.3 points.
The Hill (0-1 MAPL, 2-3 overall) hasn’t topped Hun since 2010.
Prediction >> Hun School 40-13.
Perk School Looks for Four Straight
Perkiomen School (4-1) travels to Academy of the New Church Saturday at 1 p.m. seeking a four-game win streak for the second time in two seasons.
ANC (1-4) has lost four straight since defeating Lower Moreland in Week 1.
Prediction >> Perkiomen School 20-14.