Indiana won't get learning curve in opener
We’re about to see just how much optimism matters when building a young football team.
Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas feels good about the team he has put together in the past few weeks. And the players are upbeat about the expectations the veteran coach has heaped upon them.
But when the Mars Fighting Planets get off the bus Friday night at Andy Kuzneski Field, will any of it matter?
Mars is the preseason favorite to win the WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference. It boasts one of the top rushers in the history of the league. It has experience and talent on both sides of the ball.
The Indians? Well, they have only 38 players on the roster. Some of those 38 have not played varsity ball before. There are only three starters who were regulars last season.
“They’re a strong program,” Zilinskas said of the Planets. “This is a challenge. It will be no picnic.”
A picnic? No this won’t be one.
A test? For sure. Ever the educator looking for teaching moments, Zilinskas whole-heartedly believes his team can shock a lot of people in this one.
“We always play them tough,” Zilinskas said, noting that his team has beaten the traditionally strong Planets twice in the past six years.
It’s not like Zilinskas is speaking from untruths. Just five seasons ago, he took the Indians on the road to Mars, and the hosts narrowly escaped with a 17-14 win on a last-minute field goal. Indiana finished 1-8 that season; Mars went 7-4, won the conference title and advanced to the WPIAL playoffs. That’s a story Zilinskas assuredly will share with his team in the pregame talk.
Pulling off the upset this time will be just as much a momentous task as it was in 2009, though.
Despite losing their three-year starting quarterback, a host of linemen and their top wide receivers, the Planets still have Josh Schultheis, and that’s more than a lot of teams can say. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back has been prolific in the Wing-T, to the tune of more than 3,600 career rushing yards.
For Zilinskas, there’s no debating Schultheis’ greatness. The past two times Indiana has played Mars (a 38-15 loss last year and a 40-6 setback in 2012), Schultheis has rushed for exactly 211 yards in each game and scored a total of five touchdowns.
“He’s an elite player, by far,” Zilinskas said. “He’s been very productive. He’s just a stud. He poses a big challenge for us to stop him. He’s 225 pounds, and he’s physical, and he knows how to run the ball.”
Indiana’s other issue is on offense, and it’s a big one.
Having a rebuilt front line where only center Matt Denver is the returning starter is one thing; having to open the season against Mars and it’s mountain of a nose tackle, Marshall Robinson, is another. The 6-foot-3 Robinson checks in at 380 pounds, or about 175 pounds more than the average varsity lineman.
The massive Robinson was a handful last year when the teams played, and he certainly will be this time. But just as he feels optimistic about his team’s chances of surprising people this year, Zilinskas is also upbeat about the task the 240-pound Denver will face as the lead blocker against Robinson.
“Matt is really looking forward to this challenge,” Zilinskas said. “I thought he played well against him last year. (Robinson is) not in great, great condition. But he is huge, and he’s a good athlete.”
Zilinskas feels somewhat optimistic about dealing with Robinson because Indiana’s option attack uses double-teams on the nose guard anyway, so it’s not like the line will have to do something it isn’t used to when taking on Mars.
But you never know. Dealing with Robinson and Schultheis will be tough, especially so since Indiana has such a young roster.
But from what he’s seen so far, Zilinskas isn’t about to write off his team as the underdog.
“The encouraging thing for us is we have some athletes who can make some plays,” Zilinskas said. “We have tough kids on both sides of the ball. This is a team that’s undersized, but they’re tough and scrappy and they keep working hard. We’re seeing constant improvement. It’s not a matter of if we become a good team, it’s when.”