The Kentucky Warriors find themselves in an all-too-familiar position.
Last season, the Warriors fell to the Cincinnati Hawks 36-28 in the 2013 Northern Frontier Football League Championship Game. A year later, Kentucky has a shot at redemption.
On Saturday, the Warriors (11-1) will one again travel to Woodward High School in Cincinnati to take on the Hawks (11-1) for a shot at the team’s first NFFL Championship.
“They’re excited about it,” Warriors head coach Jamie Rice said. “We were here last year and we didn’t play our best game in the championship game. They’re pretty excited to get out there and finally show how we actually play football.”
The Hawks have had the Warriors number recently. In addition to last season’s championship game, the Hawks clobbered Kentucky 42-10 earlier in the regular season. In that game, Cincinnati’s defensive line dominated, and was in the Warrior backfield all night long. Kentucky would throw five interceptions in the game and total -40 yards rushing on the night.
“I don’t know what really happened that game. We played about as bad as we ever played,” Rice said. “A sub-par effort against a team like that is not going to do it.”
If the Warriors hope to have any sort of success on Saturday night, they will need stellar play from their offensive line.
“It’s going to come down to the offensive line. A lot of rests on those guys,” Rice said. “If that offensive line plays well, then guys like Jermaine Payton and David Mallory and Jontez Jones and Luke Brown…then who knows?”
Defensively, the Warriors will rely heavily on its secondary. Led by veteran quarterback Antonio Davis and a fleet of elite receivers, the Hawks spread offensive attack sliced and diced the Kentucky defensive for over 550 yards of total offense during the regular season. Kentucky defensive backs Nate Fannin, Snook Martin, Chance Freeman and Mason Jordan have since distinguished themselves as one of the best units in the league, and they’ll need to play like it on Saturday.
Rice also hopes the Warrior defensive line, led by 5-year veteran Steve Lee, can put some pressure on Davis and force him to make mistakes.
“If our defensive line plays tough, and we’re able to work the linebackers and get some pressure on the quarterback, then it’s going to help us out big time,” he said. “Three seconds vs. six, that’s a big difference.”
Though the Warriors haven’t had much recent success against the Hawks, Rice has seen his team grow and mature, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In last season’s championship game, the Warriors were without running backs Luke Brown and Jontez Jones, wide receiver Michael Weber and quarterback Jonathon Schweickart. With an abundance of talent at the skill positions, particularly quarterback, Rice has a much more versatile offense to work with an he did a year ago.
“What we’ve tried to this year…is gear up to play the Hawks this year,” Rice said. “We’re just a more dynamic offense that can do quite a bit more than we did last year against them.
“Definitely Schweickart…we need him to take another big step. He’s really solidified himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s cut down on the turnovers and has done a really good job of managing the game. That offensive line gives him time when he’s throwing, I don’t know if there’s a better arm in the league.”
The 2014 season continues the upward climb the Warriors’ franchise has experienced since its inaugural season in 2009. Since going 3-7 in the team’s first year, the Warriors’ record has improved every season. The only thing left on the team’s checklist? A league championship.
“A lot of them Steve (Lee), (Nate) Fannin, they’ve been here four or five years, and they’ve seen the struggle,” Rice said. “Everyone seem pretty poised. They want it bad.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter