Like most coaches, Indiana’s Mark Zilinskas focuses his efforts on one opponent at a time, and the veteran coach is hardly looking past Friday’s showdown with heavyweight Franklin Regional.
But even Zilinskas couldn’t deny the significance of the Indians’ home opener in terms of the big picture.
“All the games are important, but this one has a lot of consequences,” Zilinskas said.
With a win over the Panthers, Indiana would not only improve to 2-0, but also jump ahead of Franklin Regional and Mars in the standings. The Panthers and the Planets were tabbed in the preseason as the top two contenders for the Greater Allegheny Conference title.
Last week, Franklin Regional knocked off Mars, the defending conference champion, and if Indiana can win Friday, it would be lone team among the three without a loss.
That would put the Indians in the driver’s seat early in the chase for the conference title, and it’s never too early to be in that position.
“There’s a lot riding on this game. It could really put us in a great position,” Zilinskas said. “There’s a ton to play for — not that we’d look at the other games after this as gimmies.”
Zilinskas said the players know the importance of the game even though the coaching staff hasn’t focused on it throughout the week.
“They can figure that out on their own,” he said. “We’ve mentioned it a little bit.”
The Indians gained a lot of confidence from their season-opening 33-7 win over Hampton, and while Zilinskas said that’s a good thing, his focus has been shoring up the areas that were less than satisfactory in the opener.
“To come out with a big win was good,” Zilinskas said, “but when you win like we did, you worry about getting overconfident at some point. You have a tendency to relax and make some mistakes. Looking at the video, there are things to improve on, and that’s what we’re emphasizing this week is going and getting better in areas in which we were undisciplined.”
To the casual fan, the Indians looked like a well-oiled machine against Hampton, rolling up 363 total yards as their new-look shotgun offense passed its first test with flying colors.
What Zilinskas was most pleased with was his defensive unit, which held Hampton to 186 yards, including only 30 on the ground, and forced four turnovers.
The defense will face a stiffer test this week in Franklin Regional, which utilized a three-quarterback system in the season-opening 20-13 win over Mars. Despite the Panthers’ narrow winning margin, they played better than the score indicated and had three touchdowns called back by penalties.
Although Franklin Regional entered the season with a largely unproven core of skill players, Zilinskas has seen enough on film to know the Panthers have some dangerous playmakers.
The Indians’ 12th-year coach expects a tight ballgame, one that might come down to the final minute.
“They’re definitely a good football team,” Zilinskas said. “We know they were one of the preseason favorites. They played a tough game against Mars.
“I think it’s going to be competitive game, it’s going to be a tight game. … This may come down to a couple plays at the end of the game. And it’s certainly one we can win. We feel confident in terms of the matchups. They’ve got some skill guys, and so do we. And you’re probably going to see some big plays made.”
The Indians made their share of big plays in the season opener.
Senior quarterback Sean Thompson hit receiver Riley Stapleton for a 61-yard touchdown reception, and De’Quan West had a 100-yard game in his first game as the fullback.
West split time with Thompson at quarterback last season before getting hurt. His strong debut at fullback was a bit of a confirmation that the position move was the right move.
“De’Quan, he’s having a big confidence lift in terms of what he did,” Zilinskas said.
Senior receivers Stapleton and Darrious Carter hauled in all nine of Thompson’s completions, and they will continue to be his favorite targets. Stapleton is 6-foot-4 and Carter stands an inch taller, presenting tough matchups for most defenses.
“We always like the height matchup,” he said. “And we didn’t get a whole lot of heat on our quarterback (against Hampton), so our line got off to a good start.”