Before the season, Central High School football coaches, players and fans probably viewed tonight's home clash with Tyrone as the biggest on the schedule because of the likelihood the Blair County rivalry game would determine the Mountain League Nittany Division champion and potentially a top seed in the District 5-6 Class A playoffs.
Not in their wildest dreams could they have envisioned the ante being raised further because the Scarlet Dragons' very playoff lives might be dependent on the outcome after an 0-3 start.
That, however, is exactly the situation. Currently tied for 12th place in the district standings, Central, the 2008 champion and 2009 semifinalist, has its back almost to the wall heading into its 7 p.m. kickoff with the undefeated Golden Eagles at Roaring Spring Athletic Field.
While a loss wouldn't entirely eliminate the Dragons from getting into the eight-team playoff field, it would have them fighting an uphill battle with four teams ahead of them remaining on the schedule. A win, though, would give Central a rating point windfall and a heavy dose of momentum.
"Definitely, this is a big game, and I think our kids circled it on the calendar when the schedules came out. We're at a point, though, where we have to take it one game at a time,'' said Central coach A.J. Hoenstine, whose team beat Tyrone by seven in the regular season before losing a playoff rematch by seven last year. "We lost two games that were probably two of the roughest I've ever been a part of as a player or a coach. I'm happy with the way we played last week. Tyrone presents a big challenge.
"Our kids are smart. They know what's at stake.''
Game: Tyrone Golden Eagles (4-0) vs. Central Scarlet Dragons (1-3)
Where: Roaring Spring Athletic Field, Roaring Spring
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
The coaches: Tyrone - John Franco (208-79, 25th year); Central - A.J. Hoenstine (31-39, seventh year)
Series record: Tyrone, 19-14-2
Last meeting: Tyrone, 7-0 (2009 District 6 Class AA semifinals)
The Dragons are really only two plays from being 3-1: They lost by two points to Bellefonte on a desperation pass, then fell at Central Mountain by three the following week by giving up all 10 points they surrendered in the fourth quarter, including a game-deciding field goal.
Central bounced back last week to score its first win in resounding fashion, 47-0, at Penns Valley.
Tyrone coach John Franco isn't looking at this as the typical 4-0 vs. 1-3 matchup.
"They're very talented. They've got a ton of gamebreakers,'' Franco said. "Each week they'll be battling harder. But they're always tough.''
The focus of Tyrone's defensive emphasis will be Central sometimes quarterback/sometimes tailback Lucas Runk. Despite breaking his ankle in a summer baseball game, the Mirror's reigning player of the year has 435 yards of total offense and had a part in eight touchdown-scoring plays this year.
Franco, though, was concerned that fullback Lucas Blattenberger (188 yards rushing), receiver Adam Kreider (13 receptions) or running back Jarron Knisely could present problems if the Eagles put too many resources into stopping Runk.
"They have so many weapons,'' Franco said.
One of Central's biggest problems has been getting all of those weapons on the field at once.
"We've had to make a couple of changes,'' Hoenstine said. "All of our captains have missed time [because of injuries]. Trent Forshey hasn't played two weeks. Brandon Smith and Lucas Blattenberger missed the first week.''
Tyrone, meanwhile, had a couple of players hurt in an otherwise terrific 40-12 win over previously unbeaten Huntingdon last week. Tailback Christian Getz bruised his sternum and sat out the second half after reaching 100 yards rushing for the third straight week. Lineman Corbin Nevling-Ray also came out and didn't return.
Eagle Nick Patton, who ranks among the area's top receivers with 16 catches, hobbled off for a few plays, as well. All three are expected to be in action tonight, but injuries are one of the few things that could derail Tyrone.
"Our [roster] numbers are low,'' Franco said. "Anytime anyone is banged up, it's tough.''
Hoenstine expects a tough game regardless.
"They are so fundamentally sound,'' Hoenstine said. "The key for us is being consistent and not turning the ball over. We'll have to come out and be physical.
"We stressed to the guys we expected to be good, and the first three weeks it didn't work out. We're ready to let it out, hopefully.''