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Southern Columbia at Montoursville

Background: Tonight’s game features the state’s No. 4-ranked Class AAA team facing the two-time defending Class AA state champions in a showdown between two of the district’s most successful programs over the last 30 years. Montoursville and Southern both captured district titles a year ago and met in both the 2014 and 2015 Class AA playoffs. Montoursville became just the second team since 1991 to beat Southern in districts, winning the 2014 semifinal, 26-14, en route to capturing the district championship. Southern won a 56-50 championship thriller a year later, surviving its toughest postseason challenge on its way to another state title. Both teams possess the district’s top two defenses and are allowing just a combined 245 yards per game.

Southern PPG–57.3, YPG–484.4; PPA–2.5, YPA–119

Southern facts: In addition to winning three state championships in the last four seasons, Southern also has won a state record 79 straight regular-season games, a streak that began in Week 10 of the 2011 season. Four seniors will be playing at Big 10 schools next season: wide receiver Julian Fleming (Ohio State), running back Gaige Garcia (Michigan), linebacker Cal Haladay (Michigan State) and linebacker Preston Zachman (Wisconsin). Southern has overwhelmed the opposition this season and opened the year with five consecutive shutouts. The Tigers recorded their sixth shutout in a statement win last week, blanking Wyoming Area, then the state’s third-ranked Class AA team, 42-0 in front of 7,000 fans. Zachman returned an interception for a touchdown and and Southern surrendered 100 yards. The Tigers have scored 42 or more points, including 76 twice, in seven straight games after beating perennial South Carolina power Hammond, 36-0 on ESPN in their season opener. Fleming owns nearly every statewide receiving record there is, going over 4,000 yards and 60 touchdowns earlier this season. He is tied for the district lead in touchdowns (9) and has 36 catches for 741 yards despite rarely playing in second half. He also has returned a blocked punt and field goal for touchdowns. Garica holds the state record for total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns and went over 7,000 career yards two weeks ago. He and his brother Gavin, a sophomore, are both averaging more than 14 yards per carry and have rushed for 34 touchdowns. Gaige Garcia also caught a long touchdown last week. He and Fleming have combined for 43 catches and no other Southern receiver has more than a catch. Gaige and Gavin both went over 1,000 yards last year. Zachman is an excellent linebacker and a dual threat quarterback who has scored on long runs against Hammond and Wyoming Area. Southern is averaging 11.9 yards per play.

Southern player to watch–Jake Davis: Obviously, this team has a lot of star power, but there are a lot of other outstanding players who do not receive that much publicity. Cornerback Jake Davis is one of them and is having another big season. An all-stater last year, Davis intercepted five passes in the first four weeks and had two against Hammond.

Montoursville PPG–47.9, YPG–392; PPA–7.0, YPA–126

Montoursville facts: A team that has been all business, Montoursville has stayed focused the last few weeks after coming off a big 41-6 win against rival Loyalsock and knowing that Southern was on the horizon. The Warriors have won 11 straight regular-season games and played another complete game a week ago, blanking Mifflinburg, 38-0. Montoursville recorded its third shutout and its starting defense has been dominant, allowing just two touchdowns over the last 23 quarters. The defense has played well at every level with the defensive line stuffing the run, the linebackers flowing well and the defensive backs providing blanket coverage. Defensive tackle Zach Schmalhofer is tied for the team lead in sacks (5) and defensive end Ryan Keen is second on the team in tackles. Dylan Bennett has returned a fumble for a touchdown and made seven tackles for loss, while Logan Balouris is an outstanding three-year starting linebacker. Dylan Moll and Jacob Reeder have excelled at cornerback and combined to hold the district’s leader in yards, Rees Watkins, without a catch in the Loyalsock victory. Logan Ott and Dillon Young have flourished at safety and Young returned an interception for a touchdown in a 49-12 victory against HAC-I champion Jersey Shore. Offensively, Montoursville features a terrific line that often has overpowered the opposition. Montoursville matches its defensive depth with quality offensive depth and five players have run for more than 140 yards. Rocco Pulizzi is fifth among area rushers, Ott scored twice last week, Reeder gave Loyalsock problems and fullback CJ Signor has provided good lead blocking while scoring his eighth touchdown last week. Quarterback Hunter Shearer leads the area in passer rating and threw for 153 yards and a touchdown last week. Jaxon Dalena is coming off an 1,100-yard season a year ago and has been outstanding since returning from a midseason injury, catching four passes for 103 yards and a touchdown against Mifflinburg. He, Young, Signor and Cameron Wood all have caught multiple touchdowns. Kickers Ian Plankenhorn and Colin Gorini are 51 for 51 on extra points and Plankenhorn has kicked five field goals. Montoursville has all but officially clinched the district’s top Class AAA seed and will have homefield advantage throughout districts.

Montoursville player to watch–Cameron Wood: The all-state defensive end has been a force all season and should play a prominent role again tonight. Wood has five sacks and a team-high 10 tackles for loss. He has been a consistent disruption in the backfield, stifling the run and pressuring the quarterback. He also is a talented tight end who has made some big passing plays, while providing excellent blocking.

Outlook: It speaks to how dominant Southern has been that Montoursville enters this game a huge underdog. This game helps Montoursville moving forward and comes at a good time with the playoffs approaching. Still, the Warriors have had this game circled on the calendar and believe they can do well. The power of that belief was felt in 2014 and 2015. Montoursville has to play its best game to have a shot at the upset tonight, but it would be foolish to count it out.

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