Indians defense to be tested

Sentinel file photo
Juniata’s Ben Lauver has possession of the ball against Susquenita in a game earlier this season. The Indians open the playoffs with a home game against Bald Eagle.

MIFFLINTOWN — With the loss of so many key seniors from a year ago the Juniata football team seemed to be in rebuilding mode as the 2017 season began.

Instead, the returning veterans kicked it up a notch and the newcomers provided vital contributions. The result — the Indians are back in the District 6 Class 3A playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Juniata, (7-3) seeded fourth, takes on fifth-seeded Bald Eagle Area (4-6) in the first round Saturday at 7 p.m. at Dietrick field.

Juniata coach Gary Klingensmith is not taking the Eagles lightly despite their sub-.500 record.

“They are a better team than their record shows. They play a tough schedule and they did beat Clearfield, which is no small accomplishment,” Klingensmith said. “Had they been in our league, they would have had a winning record. They are as good as some of our better teams in the Tri-Valley League.”

BEA likes to spread teams out and throw the ball around. The Eagles average 153 yards through the air and have five receivers with 15 or more receptions — Mathew Reese (27 catches, 401 yards, four TDs), Gage McClenahan (23-255-1), Nick Turner (20-325-5), Derek Henry (19-165-1) and Kael Gardner (17-229).

McClenahan, a PIAA medalist in wrestling, leads the Bald Eagle rushing attack with 457 yards and six touchdowns. Blake Roberts chipped in with 323 yards during the regular season. Gardner tops the squad defensively with 124 tackles and four sacks. Garrett Rigg is next with 76 tackles, while Dylan Bisel has six sacks from his defensive end position. McClenahan paces the secondary with four interceptions.

“They are similar to Line Mountain in that they are a wide-open passing offense with people spread out. Sometimes they only have one man in the backfield, so our pass defense is going to have to be up to par for sure,” Klingensmith said. “We are familiar with what they do on defense, but they can give you some problems with their shifts and stunts, so our kids are going to have to be smart on the line too. It looks like a tough football game for us, but that’s what the playoffs are about. Every game is tough.”

Sophomore Jaden Jones is a dual-threat quarterback for BEA, throwing for 937 yards and six touchdowns. In addition, Jones has six scores on the ground.

“We have to put pressure on the quarterback. He’s a running quarterback, so we have to be on the lookout for that. They like to throw the ball around, so we have to cover their receivers very well,” Klingensmith said. “I expect they are going to throw the ball at least 30 times and they are going to hit some passes. Hopefully, none of them are for big gains. Defense is the key.”

Juniata lives by its running game with five players rushing for over 200 yards during the season — juniors Bryson Clark (399 yards, eight touchdowns) and Ethan Grove (345-4), seniors Zac Piper (394-3) and R.J. Becker (309-5), along with junior quarterback Jeremiah Parson (247-3).

Parson threw for 911 yards and 11 touchdowns with favorite targets being senior tight end Ben Lauver (18 receptions, 331 yards, six TDs) and Clark (15-242-1). The Indians ended the season on a high note with three straight victories, including a 14-6 win over a rugged Line Mountain squad.

“Our win over Line Mountain was a high point, but I thought we had a letdown in our last game against Upper Dauphin. We did not maintain our intensity and discipline,” Klingensmith said. “On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that we got this trap game out of the way. Hopefully, it woke us up and made us realize we have to play better from this moment on if we are going to survive.”

The Indians were relatively injury free for most of the season until the last couple games when that dreaded bug bit with some ferocity. Klingensmith has concerns but likes the extra rest day for the team.

“Everything is going well. We have some injuries, but with the game on Saturday we have some time to get them healed up,” Klingensmith said. “Our kids have been relatively healthy throughout the season until now. We just need everybody we got. We have some concern there.”

The strength of the Indians is the defense. Juniata gave up only 12 points per game and posted four shutouts during the season. The defensive line led by ends Piper (76 tackles, 10 sacks) and Lauver (59 tackles, 10 sacks), and tackle Wade Moore (79 tackles, eight sacks) are the catalysts for Juniata’s defensive success. Linebacker Clark (80 tackles, four sacks, four interceptions) and defensive back Bryce Leonard (six interceptions) are key contributors.

According to Klingensmith, who is in his 49th year at Juniata, the keys to beating the Eagles are defensive discipline, limiting mistakes and ball control for his offense.

“Our offense needs to be disciplined and keep the ball away from Bald Eagle. We have to move the ball, eliminate mistakes and have our defense put pressure on that quarterback. If we can do that, we stand an excellent chance of winning,” Klingensmith said.