Matt Atkinson is well aware of who his opponent is Saturday. It's not like the Lycoming senior receiver can just ignore the fact that it'll be Widener standing on the other side of the field. But that's just not who he and the rest of the Warriors' offense is worried about leading up to Saturday's game.
It never is, at least not so much on the offensive side of the ball. Whether Widener, Delaware Valley, Albright or Misericordia, the preparation for Lycoming's offense isn't so much about its opponent as it is about itself. The Warriors try to find a way to play their best football game in the days leading up to the game.
It's no different this week as the two teams still unbeaten in Middle Atlantic Conference play face off in Chester.
It's that kind of preparation which has helped Lycoming play its best football in some of its biggest games of the season. Head coach Mike Clark has seen his team beat a nationally-ranked team in four of his first five seasons leading the Warriors. They'll get another shot against Widener as the defending MAC champs are ranked 24th in this week's d3football.com poll. If Delaware Valley can stay unbeaten in the MAC this week against Stevenson, the Warriors will get another shot at a ranked team next week.
"We don't think about last year's game, or any game," Atkinson said. "We focus on what we need to do and how we can do it when the defense lines up against us. It's what we work on day-in and day-out. It's not about what they're going to do, but what are we going to do to beat them."
Obviously things differ on the defensive side of the ball since no opposing offense is ever the same as the last one. But the defensive game plans are as much about getting their own athletes in the open to make plays as they are about specially shutting down an opposing offense.
What it all comes back to is coaching and preparation. The superlatives thrown at defensive coordinator Steve Wiser after a 34-18 win over Wilkes two weeks ago and a 52-14 win over Misericordia last week were copious. He found a game plan which allowed his athletes to make plays to slow down two tough offenses.
On the flip side, offensive coordinator Scott Brisson has helped turn Tyler Jenny into a quarterback capable of completing 29 of 33 passes for the past two weeks for nearly 500 yards.
"We prepare every week like this is the best we've ever played. And that's the coaching, really," Lycoming safety C.J. Arhontakis said. "Even last week, that's how we prepared. Each week we get better and better preparation-wise, mentally, with watching film, and practice-wise, we practice like it's a game. That has something to do with it big time. Preparation is a huge thing in this game, especially against ranked opponents."
In Clark's first season, the Warriors beat No. 22 Delaware Valley, 10-7, to help set up Lycoming for its 14th MAC championship. In 2010 Lycoming pulled off a shocking 26-24 win over No. 13 Ithaca on a last-second field goal by T.J. Chiarolanza. Two years ago, Lycoming opened its season by beating No. 22 Rowan, 8-6, behind a defense which finished third in the country in total defense. And last year, in just his second career start, Jenny beat No. 22 Delaware Valley on the road, 24-14.
And that doesn't even count how each of the last two years the Warriors came within a last-minute touchdown of picking up wins over ranked Delaware Valley and Widener teams.
So big wins are nothing new for Clark, his staff and even his players. With the exception of the freshmen playing in Saturday's game, the players suiting up Saturday will have been through the preparation for, and a game like this before.
They've come to understand how not to get too excited about what the game means and how not to let its outcome affect the rest of the season.
The MAC title can neither be won nor lost Saturday, not with teams like Delaware Valley and Stevenson still unbeaten in the league, and Albright still lingering as the team which received the second-most first-place votes in the MAC preseason poll behind only Lycoming.
"One guy I talked to the other day said this game is going to decide the MAC championship," Mike Clark said. "Alright, then call (Delaware Valley head coach) Jim Clements and (Albright head coach) John Marzka and (Stevenson head coach) Ed Hottle and (Lebanon Valley head coach) Jim Monos and whoever else I forgot and tell them our winner is the champ and we'll be happy to celebrate if we win. Otherwise, there's a lot of people who are going to have a lot to say about what happens the rest of the year. All I know is after Saturday afternoon there will still be two undefeated teams in the league. I hope we're one of them and I think we can be one of them."
There's no reason to think it's not possible. Lycoming has shown in recent years it's capable of beating some of the best teams in the country.
Mitch Rupert covers Lycoming football for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.