By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
Heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, Canajoharie head football coach Ken Sullivan knows his team has a straightforward task if the Cougars want to claim one of the two playoff spots out of the Section II Class D South Division: Just keep winning.
Of course, given the Cougars' two opponents in the stretch drive -- at home tonight against unbeaten Cambridge, on the road against Greenwich in Week 8 -- Sullivan understands that straightforward task is all but simple.
"We definitely have to win (tonight)," Sullivan said. "If we win, that bodes well for us, because Greenwich already has two losses, Rensselaer has none and Cambridge has none."
When the Indians (6-0, 3-0 South Division) visit Canajoharie at 7 p.m., the Cougars (5-1, 2-1) will be facing a team that had steamrolled its first four opponents -- while also receiving a Week 4 victory over Bishop Gibbons via forfeit -- before finally running into trouble a week ago against Cambridge. In their first four games, the Indians had outscored their opponents 187-6, but against the Witches, Cambridge was pushed into overtime before finally pulling out a 42-34 victory on Matt Parmenter's game-winning two-yard plunge.
Sullivan said that in looking at the Cambridge-Greenwich game, he saw an Indians team that unfurled an almost completely different game plan from what head coach Doug Luke had been using as the team cruised through its first four opponents.
"I think that they'd been preparing for Greenwich from the beginning of the season," Sullivan said. "I saw many different formations and different defenses that I hadn't seen from them prior to that game."
Defensively, the Indians struggled for the first time all season, as in attempting to corral quarterback Jake Jennings from delivering big plays for the Witches in the passing game, the door was left open for running back John Barnes to pile up an astounding evening, carrying the ball 46 times for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
While the Cougars have an equally effective running back in senior Kevin Shannon -- who enters the game as the fourth-leading rusher in all of Section II with 1,006 yards and 15 touchdowns -- Sullivan expects to see a different defensive look from the Indians, considering that the Cougars haven't shown a passing game as consistent as Greenwich's.
"They're gonna defend us a lot differently. Greenwich not only has the Barnes kid, who runs the ball exceptionally well, they also have a true pass threat and Cambridge had to honor that," Sullivan said. "They were two-deep over the top, their safeties were playing off 12 to 15 yards -- they were playing pass and run."
Which is why Sullivan is putting a lot of his hopes for tonight's contest into the continued development of the Cougars' passing game. In last week's 36-6 win over Canajoharie, the Cougars got a pair of long touchdown passes in the second half from backup quarterback Jace Fox, and Sullivan is hoping for the performances of both starting signal-caller Nick Taylor and the freshman Fox to force a Cambridge defense that he expects to load the box to stop the run to have to respect the Canajoharie passing attack.
"Our passing game right now is getting better, and a lot of teams are playing eight, nine guys in the box and telling us to pass," Sullivan said. "We've been improving steadily with that, but I think that's the big thing we're going to have to do is throw the ball and force them to play both the pass and the run."
The Cougars face a nearly identical challenge on defense, as they'll have to balance between stacking the box up front to try and negate Indians running back Matt Parmenter and keeping enough players back in the secondary to stop quarterback Ethan English from creating big plays in the passing game.
Parmenter, however, may deserve the most attention. The senior has put up staggering numbers -- though he's played just five games, Parmenter ranks seventh in Section II with 909 rushing yards. He also leads the section with 151 total points, aided partly by his assuming of the Indians' kicking duties.
"He's the real deal," Sullivan said. "He's a good runner and the kid never comes off the field."
If nothing else, the Cougars come into this make-or-break game exceptionally well-prepared. With the Indians having played two of Canajoharie's opponents -- Hoosic Valley and Catholic Central -- in the week immediately preceding the Cougars' games with those teams, Sullivan has been able to do plenty of scouting.
The veteran head coach is hoping that seeing the Indians' tweaked game plan against Greenwich will be especially beneficial.
"We've followed everybody that they've played. The team we're playing one week, they played them the week before, so that was beneficial," he said. "But, a lot of the things I saw in the Greenwich game, I hadn't seen going into that. I think they were saving a lot of things for that game, so we were fortunate to be able to see that game before we play them."