Northwestern coach Josh Snyder wanted two extra football games for his team this season and he got his wish. A season-ending win over Catasauqua not only put the Tigers into the Eastern Conference Division II playoffs, but gave them the top seed in the tournament, guaranteeing that they would be able to play on their home field. An impressive 50-21 win over Nanticoke last week puts the Tigers (8-3) in position to win the Eastern Conference championship if they can defeat a tough North Schuylkill team.
The Spartans (8-3) are the defending Eastern Conference Division II champions and come in to Tigers Stadium having put together an impressive streak of wins. North Schuylkill was at 4-3 this season when they went on to win three straight regular season games to finish at 7-3 and gain the number two seed in the Eastern Conference field. The streak started with a big 31-7 win over Mahanoy Area that gave the Spartans momentum down the stretch. Last week, North Schuylkill took care of a solid North Penn team with a 28-6 win.
"They're a good football team. They also have an 8-3 record and I'm sure they would have liked to get to districts too, and sometimes, like us, you play with a little chip on your shoulder because you just want to prove yourself, so it should be a good matchup," said Snyder.
A key for North Schuylkill has been the play of both their offensive and defensive lines this season. Last week, the Spartans defense surrendered just 109 yards of total offense against North Penn and on the season, they've allowed an average of just under 15 points per game.
Early in the season, North Schuylkill was using an option offense, but found that it just wasn't working. Coach Wally Hall changed things up to use his big offensive line more effectively and geared his offense to simply run straight ahead, relying on his linemen to open holes. The change worked and the offense started to find success with the simple approach.
"They started off with a flex-bone offense and they've been running a lot more I and power-I formations since then," said Snyder. "North Schuylkill teams are always big, physical and they play downhill and are tough kids."
Running back Austin Hummel picked up a career-high 186 yards against North Penn on 23 carries. Hummel, who is a senior, is the main component of the Spartans offense, but wasn't available to play in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs due to an injury.
Conference playoffs due to an injury.
Northwestern has used its tried and true ground game with Harry Hall getting the majority of the work. Like Hummel, Hall also set a career-high last week with 237 yards rushing on 17 carries. His numbers could have been much larger, but the first team got some needed time off late in the game against the Trojans. On the season, Hall is now over the 1,500 yard mark, quite an accomplishment for a sophomore running back.
While the ground game is the key for Northwestern, quarterback Frank Dangello keeps adding onto this school record for touchdowns in a season and has now thrown 15 TD passes on the year while throwing for over 1,100 yards and completing nearly 55 percent of his passes. Getting wide receiver Cam Richardson back from a foot injury a couple weeks ago has been a key for the Tigers offense and gave Dangello his top weapon to throw to.
Defensively, the Tigers haven't gotten the respect that they deserve. None of the Tigers defensive members were chosen to the Colonial League's first team in the recent list of All-League players. Outside linebacker Taylor Breininger, who has three interceptions and four fumble recoveries on the year, was voted onto the second-team defensive unit as was Richardson for his play as a defensive back. Breininger had a fumble recovery that he returned 31 yards for a touchdown last week against Nanticoke.
Snyder believes that having the game at home will be important for Northwestern, who had a huge crowd for their win over Nanticoke last week.
"I think it's huge, getting the first seed," said Snyder. "It's great for our seniors to have another opportunity to play in Tigers Stadium and I know they want to go out on top. They've done a great job leading our team all year and they want to come out and win a championship."