Portage Area has already knocked two of the better teams in the Heritage Conference out of the District 6 high school football playoffs in back-to-back weeks.
Now the Mustangs are looking to eliminate a third.
On no one's list of squads to watch in 6-A entering the season, Portage will continue to try to prove the naysayers wrong and live up to its second seed when the Mustangs host a team that came into the season with plenty of hype and enters the postseason with a lot of momentum, Northern Cambria.
Kickoff for the quarterfinal encounter at Portage Area Stadium is set for 7 p.m.
"We were hoping to be .500 with the kids we had, with the youth and the inexperience in different places. But these seniors sure responded and became believers from the first game. Each week, they proved people wrong," said Mustangs coach Gary Gouse, who missed last week's win at Homer-Center after emergency surgery earlier that day to remove gallstones. "I'm really proud of where we're at."
The Mustangs are 9-1, with all but two of those wins coming against teams that have winning records. In the last two games, they've beaten Blairsville and Homer-Center when those opponents could have made the playoffs with wins.
Portage's bread and butter has been its running game. The Mustangs average nearly 300 yards per game on the ground. Caleb Kephart leads the way with 1,150 yards and 15 touchdowns.
However, Gouse is most proud of another aspect of his team.
"The defense this year has come so far," Gouse said. "Last year, we gave up long passes. We'd have never won a game like we did against Homer. We could have been 8-1, 9-1 last year, but we'd let people score on us before the half. We never finished the job. Our defense has done an outstanding job of not giving up big plays and bend but not break and coming up with some great plays for us. You've got to have a great defense to win big games, and we really have this year."
Only two teams have scored 20 points against Portage this year, and none have put more than 24 on the scoreboard. Fourteen Mustang defenders enter the playoffs with at least 30 tackles, topped by Cody Kephart with 139.
This week might be the Portage defense's ultimate challenge.
"Their kids are very athletic, and their skill kids are outstanding," Gouse said of Northern Cambria. "Their skill kids make a lot of big, big plays. We have to try to keep the ball away from them as long as we can and try to stop them from making big plays."
The Colts have star power. Quarterback Jeff Hogan surpassed the 1,000-yard passing mark last week and has one of the area's best touchdown-to-interception ratios: 14-to-6. Tall wideout Adam Polites is among the area's leaders in receiving touchdowns (seven) and yards per catch (24.0). Derek Bearer has five touchdown receptions and averages more than 10 yards per carry - he also had a 55-yard scoring run that sparked the Colts in their win over Cambria Heights last week. Nate Zachesky has five 100-yard rushing games in NC's last seven contests behind an offensive line with good size.
The Colts also have playmakers on defense. Alex Atkins, a 235-pound linebacker, averages more than 10 tackles, while end Josh Platko has double-digit sacks.
Northern Cambria got what one would figure would be a big emotional boost last week in beating Heights, which controlled its own destiny for a Class AA playoff home game. The Colts are 7-3.
"It's hard to tell with kids nowadays, but I think they took it in stride. They were excited about the win, but they're ready to move on now," Colts coach Paul Taranto said.
Northern Cambria also knows what it takes to win a playoff game on the road. It won at Glendale in the first round last year before falling to eventual district champion Penns Manor. The Colts avenged that loss in this season's opener, handing the Comets their only loss.
"I know I'll get 100 percent effort on Friday night. I always do," Taranto said. "It's just a matter of whether we can limit mistakes and be mentally focused. They'll definitely play their hearts out. They remember the excitement from last year. I think that's our bonus."
Gouse has a fairly young team. Playoff regulars, the Mustangs missed last year's postseason, losing their last game of the regular season, but Gouse expects them to be ready to make up for lost time.
"I think they've earned their credibility, but I don't think a lot of people give that to them. I think that's a shame. But that's fine. I think we really earned our way there this year," Gouse said.