Bethlehem’s RJ Diego gets ahead of a pair of Columbia defenders during last Thursday’s cross-divisional game in East Greenbush. The Eagles host Guilderland Friday with a Section II Class AA playoff berth on the line.
It all comes down to Friday night in Delmar.
Guilderland (2-3 division, 3-3 overall) meets Bethlehem (2-3, 2-4) in an Empire Division football game. The winner earns the fourth and final Section II Class AA playoff berth in the division, while the loser gets a pair of crossover games to conclude the season.
“It’s really fun when it comes down to this,” said Guilderland coach Dan Penna. “In essence, you’re getting an extra playoff game.”
Penna and Bethlehem coach Rick Leach said that they feel that their teams are playing some of their best football of the season.
“We’re definitely getting better,” said Leach. “Our four losses have come against teams with a combined record of 21-3. If you look at the results of our Shen and CBA games [losses by scores of 50-0 and 53-3] and then look at the results against Ballston Spa [a 35-21 loss] and Columbia [a 29-18 loss], we’ve definitely shown improvement.”
“I think we’re clicking on offense,” said Penna of his Guilderland team, which has beaten Colonie and Albany the last two games by a combined score of 86-20. “Defensively, we’re running to the ball well.”
Bethlehem’s offense has gotten better since its early-season struggles against Shenendehowa and CBA. The Eagles have scored 71 points in their last three games – an improvement that has coincided with Leach’s decision to move Trey Silver from running back to wide receiver, which was Silver’s position last year with a high school team in North Carolina. Silver scored both of Bethlehem’s touchdowns in last Thursday’s 29-18 loss to Liberty Division co-leader Columbia.
“That was the first game where we saw the real Trey Silver,” said Leach of the senior, who had four catches for 75 yards against the Blue Devils. “We had him at running back at the start of the season, and that was a spot he wasn’t very comfortable in and we weren’t comfortable with. Since we moved him to wide receiver, he’s developed a comfort level, and [quarterback] John Gosstola has developed a comfort level with him.”
With Silver split wide, Bethlehem has turned to sophomore Mike Graves to carry the load at tailback. Graves leads the Eagles with 503 rushing yards and has three games where he has gained more than 100 yards.
As the offense has straightened itself out, Leach’s concern has shifted towards his defense, which has had a difficult time keeping opponents out of the end zone. Other than a 43-14 victory over Saratoga in Week 2 where they forced seven turnovers and a 44-14 victory over Albany in Week 5, the Eagles have allowed at least four touchdowns every game. Columbia (3-1, 5-1) had several plays of 30 or more yards in last Thursday’s victory, including touchdown runs of 77 and 66 yards from quarterback John Stanley.
“We gave up too many big plays last week, which we have to eliminate if we hope to win this game [against Guilderland],” said Leach.
Big plays have not been Guilderland’s method of attack this season. Instead, the Dutchmen tend to pick apart opposing defenses with a mix of runs and short passes by quarterback Tim O’Connor. The senior signal caller has thrown for 634 yards and rushed for 304 yards, thanks in large part to the support provided by his offensive line.
“One of the things that has been consistent for us is that we’ve played strong on the line of scrimmage,” said Penna.
Bethlehem will be the first quality opponent Guilderland has faced in three weeks. The Dutchmen’s last two games were wins over the two winless Class AA teams – Albany and Colonie – and both games were decided by 30 or more points.
“Our last two opponents have been playing down this year, while our first four opponents [Ballston Spa, Shen, Saratoga and CBA] have been playing up for the most part,” said Penna. “The nice thing is we didn’t play down to the level of competition [against Colonie and Albany].”
Penna and Leach said controlling the ball will be the key to success Friday night.
“You really have to plan on playing consistently well offensively so that you can put together a 70- or 80-yard scoring drive because they [Bethlehem] have the capability of breaking a big play,” said Penna.
“We just have to mix up our coverages and mix up our blitzes [on defense],” said Leach. “The big problem we have is their size up front. They’re bigger than us on the line.”
Whoever wins Friday night’s Guilderland-Bethlehem game won’t have to wait to see if they made the playoffs. Albany (0-5, 0-6) and Saratoga (1-4, 1-5) are out of the picture, which allows Bethlehem and Guilderland to focus strictly on each other.
“It’s like getting an extra playoff game,” said Leach.