The difference between last week and this week for the Indiana Indians was their composure. Last week they had it. On Friday night, not so much.
For the second straight week to start the season, the Indians opened the game with a turnover, but unlike last week, there was no coming back from it.
The Indians fumbled on the opening kickoff, fell behind by two touchdowns just 4? minutes into the game and never gave themselves a chance in a 31-0 loss to Franklin Regional in a WPIAL Greater Allegheny Conference football game Friday at Andy Kuzneski Field.
“You’ve got to remain composed, and we lost our composure early on,” Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas said.
The Indians also missed an opportunity to take the lead position in the chase for the conference title, which wasn’t lost on Zilinskas or his players.
“Our kids are upset. They knew this was a great opportunity to win a big game early,” Zilinskas said, “but the thing that we’ve got to learn from this is it’s another football game. Yeah, it’s important, but there’s a lot of football left to play.”
Indiana was seeking a 2-0 start, which would have put the Indians atop the Greater Allegheny Conference standings and looking down at projected preseason favorites Franklin Regional and Mars, both of which would have been 1-1. But Indiana missed its chance to jump into the driver’s seat.
Instead, Mars and Indiana are 1-1 and looking up at the surprising Panthers, who entered the season as somewhat of a mystery after losing most of their offensive production from last season’s 8-3 team.
Mars and Indiana clash next week in another key early-season battle.
“We’re just running on all cylinders now, and believe me, no one is more shocked than I am,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said.
“I think that probably played into some of it, with all the talk about us being 2-0 and Mars being 1-1 and Franklin (Regional) being 1-1,” Zilinskas said. “All day around here it was like a playoff atmosphere. It was a huge game for us, and I don’t think we were as focused as we needed to be in terms of playing our game and doing the things that we do. You let a team like Franklin get in there, make a couple plays and get some momentum, it’s a tough road after that.”
It was a tough night all around for the Indians, and the miscues started before the fans settled into their seats.
DeQuan West fumbled the opening kickoff while fighting for extra yardage, setting up Franklin Regional at Indiana’s 13-yard line. The Panthers punched it into the end zone two plays later, taking the lead on quarterback Charan Singh’s 6-yard run just 43 seconds into the game.
After a quick three-and-out for the Indiana offense, Franklin Regional got the ball back at its own 49-yard line. The Panthers wasted little time, marching 51 yards in six plays on their second possession to take a 14-0 lead with just 4:21 elapsed.
By that point, the Indians were in panic mode.
“They get a score there, get some momentum,” Zilinskas said. “Then we had to punt, they got some pretty good field position and got another score, and they just got things going real quick. We got into somewhat of a panic mode and guys started pressing and doing things out of the ordinary to try to make a play, maybe shoot a gap when they’re playing defense instead of playing their responsibilities.”
“I never expected this,” Botta said. “I was worried. Make no bones about it: I was very concerned about this football team. But the fumble came, we took the ball and scored. That just seemed to change the momentum of the game. … You could see the shift in momentum right away, and we just started rolling with it.”
Franklin Regional scored on its first four possessions and took a 24-0 lead at the 8:10 mark of the second quarter, the same lead the Panthers took into halftime.
Indiana gained 125 total yards — 84 of which came on an unsuccessful last-ditch effort late in the game to avoid a shutout. The Indians mustered just 41 total yards of offense through 45 minutes of play before the second-team offense came on with 2:43 left in the game and drove the ball 84 yards to the Franklin Regional 6-yard line.
But the Indians couldn’t score before time ran out, sealing Franklin Regional’s second straight shutout over Indiana. The Panthers beat the Indians 35-0 last year.
Indiana committed three turnovers, punted seven times and had more penalty yards (60) than rushing yards (59).
Senior quarterback Sean Thompson completed 2 of 14 pass attempts for 7 yards before being pulled in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, West finished with minus-3 yards on eight carries.
Backup quarterback Jacob Zilinskas completed 2 of 4 passes for 59 yards on the Indians’ final drive.
Despite the disheartening setback, Indiana’s 12th-year coach was encouraged by his team’s spirited second-half effort. The Indians never got the offense untracked, but that didn’t stop them from playing hard on defense.
“I thought we played better defense in the second half,” Zilinskas said. “The main thing is we kept fighting. It’s easy to hang your head and just kind of give up and shut it down for the whole night. I don’t think we did that. It was frustrating that we couldn’t get anything going offensively in the second half, but I liked the way we came out and just kept playing defense and kept playing hard. We regained our composure defensively.”