This is one in a series of articles previewing Butler County high school football matchups this Friday.
On paper, Friday's football game between Mars and Knoch looks like a mismatch.
The Planets are 3-1, with their only loss coming against an undefeated Plum team two weeks ago. Mars' ground game is averaging a robust 235 yards per game.
Knoch is winless at 0-4, the most recent defeat coming with a 29-6 decision at Indiana last week. The Knights have scored no more than 12 points in any of their four games.
But Mars coach Scott Heinauer needs only to look back at the last time his team met Knoch to know that the Knights should not be taken lightly.
In 2017, Mars traveled to Knoch for the regular-season finale. Having already locked up a playoff berth, the Planets needed a win to improve their chances of earning a home game in the first round.
Instead, the Knights, who were out of playoff contention, pinned a 21-10 loss on the Planets, who ended up as the No. 7 seed. They were sent to Belle Vernon in the first round and had an early exit from the postseason with a 42-7 loss.
“We know what Knoch's record is, but records don't matter entering this game,” Heinauer said. “It's always a rivalry. They run the triple option and kids get better at that as the season goes on.
“There's no question they'll be ready for us and we need to play our best.”
Knoch coach Brandon Mowry doesn't put much stock in the Knights' upset win to close out 2017.
“That was three years ago,” he said. “Our seniors now were freshmen then and may remember that game a little bit, but it has no bearing now.”
What Mowry is concerned with is getting his team a win.
“We need to get off the schnied,” he said. “There's no better time to do that than beating Mars. But their wing-T, everything they do is predicated on the run.
“Their play-action, waggle, long passes all come off the success of their ground game. We have to find a way to limit that.”
Mars senior fullback Teddy Ruffner ran for 218 yards in last week's 27-7 win at Armstrong. It was his second 200-plus yard game this season and he now has 727 yards and 10 rushing scores in 2020.
Knoch's defense is led by down linemen Dalton Reed, Eli Reese and Hunter Roenigk, linebackers Tyler Buterbaugh and Jake Murphy.
“Those guys have een consistent in their play all year and we need them to come up big on Friday,” Mowry said.
Mars junior quarterback Quinn Fuller has thrown for 175 yards with no touchdowns and five interceptions through four games.
“There's nothing to be concerned about,” Heinauer said. “We throw the ball when we need to throw.”
Knoch received a boost this week with the reurn of quarterback J.J. Szebalskie to practice. He completed six of nine passes for 111 yards last week at Indiana before being carted off the field with pain in his lower neck and back area.
Szebalskie was cleared to return to practice this week and will play Friday. He's thrown for 304 yards this season.
“J.J. was taken off the field for precautionary measures,” Mowry said. “He does throw a nice ball. As time goes on, you evaluate what you have, what you're doing well. We've shown the ability to make plays in the passing game.”
Knights running back Keegan Fraser remains sidelined with a high ankle sprain. Keith Washington — who replaced Szebalskie at quarterback following the latter's injury — will return to running back.
Knoch leads the all-time series between the teams, 24-14. The two first played each other in 1957.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Knoch Stadium.
The Eagle sports staff's third season of Upon Further Review, a weekly show discussing Butler County area high school football, can be viewed on the Butler Eagle Sports Facebook page.