With the top four teams establishing themselves early – and not playing each other right off the bat – the second half of the Division I football slate has featured marquee games every week.
D-I may have saved its best for last.
Second-place Bishop Hendricken will host first-place La Salle on Friday at 7 p.m. It’s always big when the Hawks and Rams get together, but this one will have some extra juice – the game is a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl, and the winner will clinch the No. 1 seed for this year’s D-I playoffs.
“Whenever Hendricken and La Salle play, it’s as big as it gets,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft. “There’s no question about it – we want to win. We set goals at the beginning of every season and, every year, one of them is to beat La Salle.”
The last two seasons, Hendricken and La Salle played each other in the league opener in September. This year, the meeting will be Hendricken’s final league game and La Salle’s second-to-last, since the Rams’ annual Thanksgiving Day game against East Providence is a D-I contest.
The move to a late-season game has created a different dynamic. The Rams are unbeaten at 6-0 and the Hawks are just behind at 6-1. Both teams have already clinched playoff spots, but the No. 1 seed is up for grabs. If the Rams win Friday, they would secure at least a 7-1 finish, and every other team would have at least two losses. But if the Hawks win Friday, they would be 7-1 and would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Rams.
Hendricken would likely end up as the No. 2 seed with a loss Friday, as the Hawks would win a points allowed tiebreaker over Cranston East and Portsmouth should those teams finish at 6-2. East and Portsmouth still have to win out for that to happen, though. Cranston West and Barrington are also still in the mix, if East can’t get past winless South Kingstown this week.
At this point, the Hawks aren’t concerning themselves with where they stand – they’re just focusing on the Rams.
“We hear people talking about the seeding and what they think is going to happen, but our only goal is to beat La Salle,” Croft said. “Then we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
The Hawks played in one of the division’s first marquee games earlier this season and beat Cranston East 21-14 on Oct. 12 to move to 5-0. The next week, though, the Hawks stumbled against Portsmouth, losing 39-13 in a game that shook up the playoff picture.
Hendricken then had a bye week. It wasn’t exactly good timing.
“I would have rather played right after Portsmouth,” Croft said.
But in the end, it all worked out. The Hawks regrouped in time for last week’s game against Barrington and clinched a playoff spot with an 18-6 victory.
It was a crucial win – had the Hawks lost, they would have opened themselves up to a scenario in which they missed the playoffs.
“I think our kids have bounced back,” Croft said. “The win over Barrington kind of erased some of the bad memories from the Portsmouth game.”
After giving up a season-high in points to Portsmouth, the Hawks’ defense got back to its stingy ways against the Eagles, coming up big in key spots and allowing just the six points to go on the board.
“The defense gave up some yardage, but overall, they played well,” Croft said. “You take away the Portsmouth game, and our defense has been solid all year long.”
It’ll need to be solid again – and maybe a little better than that – when La Salle comes calling on Friday. The Rams have averaged nearly 39 points per game in league play, and they exploded in the second half last week to pass a tough test against Cranston East.
The Rams are led by senior quarterback Anthony Francis, who has completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,708 yards this season. He has thrown 13 touchdown passes and just one interception, while also rushing for 533 yards and seven scores.
Star running back Josh Morris leads the ground game. The reigning Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year has 922 yards and 16 touchdowns this year, and he’s averaging nearly 8 yards per carry.
Receivers Keon Wilson, Tyneil Cooper and Mitch DaSilva have all had big years as well, with Wilson hauling in eight touchdown passes.
“They’re so explosive offensively,” Croft said. “You’re not going to stop them. You just have to try to slow them down.”
The Hawks have some experience to lean on in that department. The Rams came into last year’s Super Bowl with many of the same weapons leading a dynamic offense, and the Hawks held them to 14 points in their upset victory.
“I don’t think we can get into a shootout with them,” Croft said. “It’s pretty much the same situation as last year. We have to play great defense. If La Salle is scoring 30 or 40 points on you, you’re probably not going to win.”
The other facet of La Salle’s attack that poses problems is the team’s pace. The Rams typically run a no-huddle offense. In addition to tiring out the defense, it gives their playmakers that many more opportunities.
“Their pace is tough,” Croft said. “They’re going to run a lot more plays than their opponents so their margin of error is a lot bigger.”
If any team can slow the Rams down, Hendricken has the best credentials. The Hawks have allowed just 79 points in seven league games, the fewest in the league. La Salle is next at 106.
Senior linebackers Marco DelVecchio and Jarrid Witherspoon have led the charge for the Hawks, with DelVecchio racking up 103 tackles this season.
“We have to be good tacklers,” Croft said. “If they’re breaking tackles, they’re going to get big plays. We’ve got to tackle and we’ve got to swarm to the ball.”
On the offensive side, the Hawks will try to remain steady. While their unit isn’t as explosive as La Salle, it’s been plenty good enough throughout the year. Quarterback Patrick Gill is a threat with his feet and his arm, the receiving corps has a lot of weapons and junior running back Remmington Blue continues to emerge as a standout. He has rushed for 800 yards this season.
“At this point, you are what you are, and I think we’re a solid offensive team,” Croft said. “I don’t think we have the firepower of some of the other teams, but we’ve done well. It’s important for us to be a balanced team – have a good defense and a solid offense.”
The Hawks will see where that leaves them on Friday.
“We feel pretty good,” Croft said. “We like where we’re at, but La Salle is obviously the best team in the league at this point, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”