Phillipsburg spent its bye week working against a very tough football foe.
“We treated the bye week as if we were our own opponent,” senior lineman Chris Gurneak said. “Coach (Frank Duffy) says our toughest opponent is ourselves.”
That may well be, given that the 7-1 Stateliners enter the NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 sectional tournament as the No. 1 seed and will host No. 8 seed North Hunterdon(3-5) Friday night (7) at Maloney Stadium.
So without a foe to contend with, some of the focus could be on individual improvement. Take, for example, senior receiver and cornerback Sterling Walker-Sutton.
“I’ve been working on getting off the line of scrimmage, and getting out of my stance,” he said. “I’ve also been working on getting defenders’ hands off me.”
That’s the kind of work that can be emphasized in a week with no game planning needed.
Some coaches might not like to enter the playoffs off a week with no game, especially against a foe like North Hunterdon that is coming off a rousing win over its archrival Voorhees, but Duffy seemed fine with that.
“I enjoyed opening in week 0, and we have to have a bye week, so if playing in Week 0 means we have a bye week now, that’s OK,” he said. “We haven’t stopped our momentum; we didn’t let up all that much.”
Duffy liked some of the benefits of a bye.
“Everyone got healthy,” he said. “And we were able to spend a week self-scouting. On offense we were able to trim the fat, take some plays out of our offense that haven’t worked as well. Defense we were able to focus on technique.”
With some wounds healed and some extra practice time spent on fundamentals, Phillipsburg entered game week focused on improving some key aspects of its game.
First and foremost would be getting the interior running game going., While senior tailback Joe Green has 847 yards and and 12 touchdowns this season, the Stateliners have only occasionally dominated between tackles the way they’d like to.
This may become especially urgent Friday as the Lions boast a veteran, tested defensive line.
“They’ll load the box up,” Duffy said. “Their first goal will be to stop the run.”
Gurneak, the Stateliners’ center, said his line is up to the challenge.
“We just have to get back to fundamentals and that’s what we have been stressing,” he said. “We can’t try and do too much and just focus on our jobs. We’re working on firing off the ball and getting a better push off the ball. We need to get back to what we did against Hunterdon Central and Bridgewater and run the ball the way we did in those games.”
Defensively, the Stateliners may focus on the Lions’ senior wide receiver Griffin Honthy, a dangerous playmaker with 28 catches for 555 yards and 5 touchdowns -- and more.
“He’s everywhere,” Duffy said. “They’ll put him in the backfield and even use him as a wildcat at the goal line. We have to learn wherever he is on every play.”
Phillipsburg will host all three sectional games -- but every game at this point is must-win.
“As seniors we talk about leaving it all on the field every game,” Walker-Sutton said. “We do our job and we don’t look back."
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.