Although his team is 1-2, it's hard for Coach John Franco to have many complaints with how his Altoona Mountain Lion defense has performed this year.
The unit, spearheaded by the likes of Markief Knode, Matt Dry, Brandon Bernazzoli, Brennan Luciano, Austin Rosenberry, Jake Diviney, Manny Span, Josh Kutz, Noah Scheinberg and Kevin Givens among others, hasn't given up 250 yards in a game yet.
Through three starts, the Lion defense only has surrendered four touchdowns on defense.
"They've been consistent for us all year," Franco said. "They played well for us up until the last drive [last week against Penn-Trafford], when we let them convert a few third downs and we needed to make a play. They've been solid. They've been steady."
The group will be put to the test in Foothills Conference high school football action Friday in Monroeville when it goes up against a 3-0 Gateway team that has put 61, 46 and 55 points on the board.
"This might be one of the best offenses I've seen. This might be the most talent I've seen on the offensive side ... or both sides," Franco said of the Gators. "Some of the scouts have told me that they have seven Division I players, and they have speed that I haven't seen before."
Gateway averages more than 400 yards per game. Its top two rushers net more than 10 yards per carry. Its top two receivers get more than 20 yards per reception. Running back Andre Martin has scored nine times and only carried the ball 30 times.
Senior quarterback Thomas Woodson runs the show. Woodson has completed 21 of 30 passes for 502 yards and five touchdowns without an interception in the early going, while also running for 150 yards and three scores. He has verbally committed to play his college ball at Arizona for Rich Rodriguez.
"We have a very experienced team. A lot of kids are returning starters. Having a veteran quarterback makes a difference offensively, and he has advanced our offense to the point that he can make live checks at the line of scrimmage," said Gators coach Terry Smith, the former Gateway star who went on to start as a wide receiver at Penn State. "He can get us out of a bad play call and make it a good play call. Experience is a big factor, and we have some very talented young men who can play very well."
Gateway is a contender for the WPIAL Class AAAA title virtually every year under Smith. Despite a 95-28 career record, this might be Smith's last year, though; Gateway is making him choose after the season whether he wants to remain as football coach or continue as the school's athletic director.
"I'm still weighing the options. I'm not sure what I'll do," Smith said.
Franco and Smith are well-acquainted: Smith coached Franco's youngest son, Johnny, in the PSFCA East West All-Star Game one year after Franco himself was the West coach, and Franco served Smith as a consultant. Although on paper it looks like Altoona will have its work cut out for it just to stay with the Gators, Franco has Smith's respect.
"The greatest challenge for us is John is a very crafty coach who won a state title. He's a terrific coach. They run a lot of shifts and motion that are designed to outflank and confuse a defense. Our first three opponents didn't do any of that, so we have to be disciplined," Smith said. "We have to make sure we don't get outcoached."
After a fast start against Norwin, Altoona has sputtered offensively. The Lions averaged 218.5 yards in a 7-0 loss to Kiski Area and a 21-7 setback at Penn-Trafford. Avery Howsare, who ran for 160 yards in week 1, has been held to 29 yards since, although Givens emerged last week with 67 yards on the ground.
"I knew it was going to take time to develop it. We have a lot of work to do, and we're just not very good at this point," Franco said. "We don't accept that. We've got to get better."