About to embark on a stretch of games that could define its season, the Altoona Area High School football team is about to get some home cooking.
The Mountain Lions - who've split a pair of games in suburban Pittsburgh to open the campaign - will be back at the friendly confines of Mansion Park this week and next for WPIAL Class AAAA Foothills Conference encounters. Tonight at 7 p.m. the Lions entertain 1-1 Penn-Trafford.
"It's definitely nice to be playing at home. A couple of two-hour drives notwithstanding, it's nice to be able to come right out to the field after school," Lion coach John Franco said.
Franco hopes the two-game homestand - which is followed by pivotal games at McKeesport and Hempfield - will result in his team becoming a more complete squad.
On the one hand, there's little room to have any gripe with the Altoona defense. The Lions have surrendered two touchdowns and 20 points in games at Norwin and Kiski Area. They are holding opponents to 222.5 yards per game.
Game: Penn-Trafford Warriors (1-1) vs. Altoona Mountain Lions (1-1)
Where: Mansion Park, Altoona
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
The coaches: Penn-Trafford - John Ruane (22-11, third year); Altoona - John Franco (235-89-2, 28th year)
Series record: Penn-Trafford, 1-0 (first met in 2012)
Last meeting: Penn-Trafford, 21-14 (Sept. 14, 2012)
Unfortunately, an offense with 11 new starters hasn't allowed Altoona to take full advantage of its defensive prowess. The Lions have put 21 points on the board, all the results of shortened fields through the four turnovers they forced in the first game.
Altoona was shut out at Kiski last week, 20-0.
Revered for his offensive acumen, Franco knows the Lions need to get better with the ball, inexperience aside.
"I knew our offense would be a little behind, but it's not nearly where it needs to be. We need to improve our offense really in every phase," Franco said. "Each position's performance really has to be upgraded. I knew it was going to take a little longer, but I'm disappointed in where we went to last week."
The Lions managed just 56 yards and turned the ball over three times last week and still were in the game deep into the second half. Junior quarterback Eli Mencer has been the most effective weapon so far, rushing for 137 yards. Kevin Givens has 64 yards on the ground to go with a couple of touchdowns.
Passing-wise, Mencer still is getting his feet wet. Altoona has just 52 yards through the air so far.
"We've got to get our passing game off the ground. That hasn't meshed yet," Franco said. "Our running game has been off and on, but people are loading the box, and we have to be able to throw to balance things out a little.
Injuries, although minor, have held back the Lions' offensive development, too. Mencer has been dealing with a groin injury since the second scrimmage, which has affected his practice time. Running backs Tyler Wray and Caleb Weston have missed time, and there's been a little shuffling on the offensive line, too.
This week, tight end Colby Fink had to sit out some practices hurt.
"That's football. That happens. You deal with the bumps and bruises and find a way to get through it," Franco said.
This looks like a game where any little break could be the difference. Penn-Trafford is coming off a 17-3 win over Norwin to even its record after losing the opener to North Hills. The Warriors won last year's meeting in Harrison City by seven points.
"I'm very impressed with their overall program. They're very well coached, real tough kids. This year, the strength of their team is the offensive and defensive lines. They have good size, not great size, but six or seven good, strong stocky kids they can move around," Franco said. "They run the ball exceptionally well, and they shut the run off."
Devin Austin is the most dangerous Warrior. Lining up sometimes as a running back and sometimes as a wildcat quarterback, he's rolled up 309 yards rushing this season. The Warriors also have gotten 163 yards from Tom Stinelli via the run.
Penn-Trafford's problem hasn't been unlike Altoona's: Its scored 31 points this season.
"The bad thing is we haven't been able to put the football in the end zone. That's hurt us," Warrior coach John Ruane said. "Defensively, we need to get better in the tackling department. With a big, physical team like Altoona, they'll kill us if we don't tackle better."
"It's going to be like strength meets strength this week," Franco said.