For coach Bob Lisher and the Free State High football team, revisiting the game film from their 17-0 loss to Olathe East on Oct. 8 was a mixed bag.
The defense, for instance, was excellent, holding the Hawks to only 203 yards in total offense.
The offense, though, stood out for the wrong reasons. Marred by crucial penalties, sacks and other miscues, the Firebirds were held to 106 yards and shut out for the only time this season.
Free State (5-4) gets a shot at redemption against Olathe East (8-1) at 7 tonight in a Class 6A playoff game at the College Boulevard Activity Center.
“We hadn’t done it up to that point, and we haven’t done it since,” Lisher said, regarding the many mistakes in the first meeting. “So hopefully we don’t have a repeat over in Olathe.
“If we can eliminate those types of mistakes and play defensively like we did last time, we have a chance,” he added.
The Firebirds will again be tasked with shutting down the Sunflower League’s most productive running back, Brandon Willingham.
Willingham, who leads the League with 1,428 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, rushed for 135 yards and two TDs in the last meeting.
“Olathe East doesn’t have very many secrets,” Lisher said. “They’re going to line up and run their bread-and-butter plays, and they’re going to say ‘we’re going to run it better than you can stop it.’”
The matchup certainly pits strength against strength.
Similar to the Hawks, the Firebirds like to line up and run the staple plays of their offense: specifically the read-option with quarterback Dylan Perry back in the shotgun.
Last time against the Hawks, Perry — whose 1,022 rushing yards rank fifth in the league — was held to only 12 yards on 18 carries, mainly because he was sacked six times for minus-49 yards.
Standout senior running back Preston Schenck was not a factor in that game because of a badly sprained ankle, contributing to the Firebirds offensive struggles.
But now, at roughly 90 percent, Schenck appears back to his explosive, early-season form.
A healthy Schenck (128 rushing yards) was a big reason the Firebirds were able to run over Lawrence High last week, as he compliments the slashing, inside runs from Perry with his ability to cut the ball outside.
With the one-two punch of Perry and Schenck rolling in the backfield, the Firebird defense was also stifling against the Lions.
Free State forced three turnovers, two of which resulted in defensive scores, and allowed only six second-half points.
“Having the game that we did last week really showed that our defense can play up with anybody,” senior linebacker Matt Cole said. “We can score with anybody, stop anybody and we just have to keep doing that every week now.
Cole’s sentiment about “every week” rings especially true: he and his Firebird teammates don’t envision tonight as their final time suiting up this season.
“We still didn’t put a full game together,” senior center/defensive end Cale Nieder said of Free State’s 42-20 victory over Lawrence. “I’d really like to see what we can do when we put a whole game together. I’m hoping to do that (tonight).”