It feels like playoff football.
While it’s only Week 4 of the high school season, there are several critical games tonight, including three that match the first- and second-place teams in a conference.
Here is what to watch for in what should be a compelling Friday night:
1.McGuffey at Beth Center: This is the first test for two of the top teams in the Interstate Conference.
Beth-Center had a first-half challenge with Southmoreland last week, just as McGuffey did earlier in the season against Frazier. Both games, however, ended up being blowouts. The Bulldogs’ smallest margin of victory has been 26 points. McGuffey isn’t far behind with its closest game being a 20-pointer.
It’s likely to be much closer tonight when the teams meet in Fredericktown.
The key: Can McGuffey tackle in open space?
Beth-Center, which runs a spread offense, puts opposing tacklers on an island against either quarterback Bailey Lincoski or running back Dominic Fundy.
Lincoski has 42 carries for 383 rushing yards and Fundy has 659 yards on 56 carries.
The Highlanders’ defense has been up to the task so far, shutting out opponents in three of their four games and surrendering an average of fewer than six points. But nobody would consider any of their opponents as world-beaters. The four teams McGuffey has defeated have a combined 2-13 record and average fewer than nine points per game on offense.
An advantage Beth-Center has is playing against an offense similar to McGuffey’s. That came back in Week Zero against California. But the Highlanders run it smoothly with lead back Christian Clutter, who has 13 touchdowns.
2. Burgettstown at South Side Beaver: The chinstraps better be buckled tight for this one.
With both teams returning four offensive linemen this year, there are no secrets as to what either wants to do when they play for first place in the Three Rivers Conference tonight.
The key: It doesn’t get any simpler than this. The winner will be the one that controls the line of scrimmage.
The battles in the trenches have been convincingly won by Burgettstown (2-0, 3-0) in its first three games. The Blue Devils throw the ball but it might be only to keep the South Side Beaver defense honest.
The Burgettstown underclassmen backfield of Jake Lounder and Shane Kemper have followed a bruising line to 470 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
It’s just as simple for South Side Beaver (2-0, 4-0). The Rams are averaging more than 316 rushing yards. The ball is likely going to find the hands of senior running back Jake Botkin, who has rushed for 834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Something has to give when Burgettstown is on defense. South Side averages 39.8 points but the Blue Devils have allowed only six points.
3. Monessen at West Greene: A meaningful game in the Tri-County South Conference in the middle of September.
This game – a matchup of the top two teams in the standings – takes on added importance with the Class A playoffs being cut to eight teams this year.
It’s not a win-and-in situation but looking at the remaining schedules for each team, it could very well determine the conference champion.
The key: Can Monessen (2-0, 3-0) withstand the offensive line and rushing attack of the Pioneers?
With all of its offensive line returning, West Greene (3-0, 3-1) has leaned on Ben Jackson, the WPIAL’s third-leading rusher. The junior has 874 yards on 72 carries, an average of more than 12 yards per attempt.
4. Peters Township at North Hills: What a big win Peters Township had over West Allegheny last week.
Not only was it a win the Indians needed over a quality program, but it cemented the Indians as a contender in Class 5A and the Allegheny Eight Conference.
Peters Township (2-1, 3-1) has two nonconference games in a row, a 7:30 p.m. kickoff tonight at undefeated North Hills and rival Canon-McMillan at home next week. But as coach T.J. Plack and several Indians have said, it’s about taking it one game at a time.
The best thing the Indians can continue to do is have success on early downs to put sophomore quarterback Logan Pfeuffer in better situations. Pfeuffer has gotten better each week, including last week when he was 12 of 16 for 199 yards and two touchdowns against West Allegheny.
The key: Is North Hills’ Tyler Brennan going to play?
The motor that runs the offense at North Hills (3-0, 4-0) didn’t play last week in a 3-0 win over Hampton. In each of the first three weeks, North Hills scored at least 35 points with Brennan in the lineup.
Yes, he makes that big of a difference.
North Hills gives Brennan the ball in multiple formations, including taking direct snaps in a wildcat look. He scored five touchdowns in each of the opening two weeks of the season and has 13 for the season. Brennan has 902 rushing yards and averages 12.42 yards per carry.
5. Washington at California: This was the game everybody was circling prior to the season and for good reason.
California was 12-1 last year with its only loss coming in a WPIAL Class A semifinal against Imani Christian.
Washington also finished the regular season undefeated and won the WPIAL Class 2A championship.
Now, they are teams going in different directions.
After a sluggish loss against Charleroi, the Prexies have won two straight by a combined score of 113-0. A disclaimer would be those victories came against winless teams, Summit Academy and Brownsville.
California (1-1, 1-3) a pick of many to at least return to similar form from a season ago, has lost to Beth-Center, Monessen and Laurel but remains in playoff contention with a 1-1 conference record.
The key: California must stop the passing attack of Washington?
Washington (1-1, 3-1) has Zack Swartz, Dan Walker Jr. and Zahmere Robinson. Swartz, the junior quarterback who recently broke the record for passing touchdowns at Washington (40), has completed 72 percent of his throws (58 of 80) for 1,070 yards. There are only two quarterbacks in the WPIAL with more passing yards than Swartz.
Receivers Walker Jr. and Robinson have combined for 35 catches, 724 yards and nine of Swartz’s 11 touchdowns.