Pope John may be the lone team on the Manchester Essex football schedule this fall that it did not play in 2011. But make no mistake about it, these two teams are very familiar with one another.
“We’ve played them for years and when we haven’t played them we’ve scrimmaged them,” Hornets head coach Mike Athanas said. “So we know what they’re all about.”
This matchup has a lot of intrigue because both teams come into this game with their backs against the wall sporting identical 3-0 records against a difficult early season schedule, and both teams will be fired up at the prospects of breaking into the win column.
When the two teams take the field Saturday at Chelsea High School (2:00 p.m.) they will do so with similar skill-sets and a similar offensive system, but the two teams go about their offense in different ways.
Manchester Essex and Pope John both run the spread offense, but that’s where the similarities end. The Hornets prefer a balanced attack and will take what the defense gives them while Pope John likes to run the ball out of the spread and use the passing game as a complement to the run game.
When Pope John runs the football, the primary ball carrier is junior Joe D’Onofrio. Athanas says D’Onofrio is the man that the Hornets need to keep an eye on as he and the Tigers have averaged more than 22 points per game early in the season.
While there are no doubts that the Tigers can put points on the board, it’s been their inability to keep teams from putting points on the board that has really hurt them as they have allowed 39, 49 and 44 points in their first three games.
The Hornets will be looking to fix some problems that have plagued them over the first three weeks, most notably making plays in clutch situations.
Last week’s frustrating 26-12 loss to Cathedral is a prime example as the Hornets got the balanced offense they wanted with quarterback Cory Burnham throwing the ball well and he along with running back Chris Dumont picking up yards consistently in the running game.
While the Hornets were not out-gained on the road last Friday, however, they were not efficient in the red zone and had a few impressive drives come to a screeching halt close to the end zone.
“I think what we need to do after watching the last three games is make plays when we need to,” Athanas said. “Last week we were close to 300 yards of total offense and we were balanced just like we want to be. But we couldn’t punch it in when we got close. On the defensive end we did some good things too but we had trouble stopping (Cathedral) on third and long. We haven’t done it yet this year but if we can make those plays we will put ourselves in much better shape.”
Manchester Essex will get an offensive boost on Saturday as senior captain and running back Jake Fitzgerald returns from an injury. Junior Chris Dumont has shined in Fitzgerald’s absence and will continue to see carries.
Athanas says Dumont’s emergence combined with the return of Fitzgerald and the play of Burnham at quarterback makes the offense more dangerous.
“Dumont had a great game each of the last two weeks and with (he and Fitzgerald) in the backfield defenses can’t key in on one guy,” Athanas said. “It gives us a nice little one-two punch and with Cory back there too teams will have to pick their poison.”
1. Finish Drives: Last week against Cathedral the Hornets were balanced on offense and moved the ball up and down the field, they just didn't finish those drives in the red zone. The Hornets will need to finish drives tomorrow afternoon. 2. Balance the Offense: It's the goal of head coach Mike Athanas each week, have a balanced offense where teams need to key in on both the run and the pass. The yards may not even out but the Hornets will need Pope John to respect both the run and passing games. 3. Contain Joe D'Onofrio: D'Onofrio is the player who makes the Pope John offense go, Manchester Essex will have to contain him.