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Another week, another pseudo playoff game for Norwin (3-5, 2-4).
After failing to secure a playoff spot last week against Canon-McMillan, the Knights will need to win their remaining games and hope for a Big Macs loss.
The top six teams in Class 6A get in (only one conference, nine teams), and Norwin and Canon-McMillan both have 2-4 records.
But first things first, Mt. Lebanon (3-5, 3-3, currently in fifth place).
Both teams enter the game losers of four of their last five games, and both have struggled all season to string together any momentum from week to week.
It’s no secret Class 6A is top heavy, but if you excuse two bad losses against North Allegheny (56-14) and Pine Richland (44-7), the Knights appear to level out.
In the team’s other six games, their points for and points against is nearly identical (158 points for, 161 against), but it’s still the defense that has struggled.
Coach David Brozeski isn’t in the business of making excuses, but a few injuries along the defensive line and linebacker positions have kept the Knights from building a steady defensive rotation.
Senior inside linebacker Ryan Beach missed weeks three weeks with a shoulder injury, and was able to return to the lineup last week.
“It’s led to having to shuffle guys around and trying to get things set up,” said Brozeski. “It’s not like when you have the same players every week and building that continuity. That in-continuity has carried over, but we’re starting to get down to the nitty-gritty at the end of the season and we need to find a way to get a win and see what happens.”
Brozeski said the defense’s biggest problem this season has been stopping the run. The Knights are somewhat undersized, and have been vulnerable to the power-run game.
Last week Canon-McMillan wide receiver Drew Engel was forced into service at running back thanks to injury. The senior responded with 292 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns.
“Our run defense has been putting us in situations where teams are having longer drives against us, and that results in keeping our defense on the field for more reps, and we get worn down a little bit,” said Brozeski. “Then you have to gamble a little bit (to get stops), and sometimes you get caught in a gamble and it results in a touchdown.”
Entering the playoffs last season, Norwin entered the playoffs allowing 17.4 points per game (second in terms of regular season scoring defense behind Pine Richland), but this season the Knights are allowing 32 points per game.
The Knights’ defense is led by a pair of Youngstown State commits in outside linebacker Gianni Rizzo and safety Jayvon Thrift. The pair lead the team in tackles as Thrift often plays close to the line of scrimmage to help out in run support.
Offensively, Norwin is led by quarterback Jack Salopek, who has an offer from Pitt, but, according to 247Sports is also considering Virginia, West Virginia and Penn State.
Salopek’s numbers play (81-153, 1,329 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions), but a young offensive line isn’t the best compliment for a junior garnering Division-I attention.
Left tackle Trent Cockeram (junior), left guard Aaron Bowen (junior), center Jake Burgman (junior), right guard Anthony Giansante (sophomore) and right tackle Connor Vogel (junior) make up the offensive line.
“We have five new starters, and we’re trying to get the guys to improve every week,” said Brozeski. “But they’re putting in the work.”
The offense has been expanded for Salopek as the quarterback is being given the freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage, usually with two plays called when breaking the huddle.
“He’s a very talented player, he enables us to have a lot of different opportunities within the offense,” said Brozeski.
While the record isn’t ideal and the playoffs are still up for grabs, Brozeski said he tried to appreciate the time this group spends together.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to compete,” said Brozeski. “It’s [football] unique that it’s one of the few sports where you practice three times as much as you play, so you really cherish the opportunity to compete. At the end of the year, it comes down to the nine or 10 opportunities you have to compete, and this is just another chance to do that.”