NAPPANEE — Blessed with both size and athleticism, New Haven, according to NorthWood coach Nate Andrews, is a high school football team that can strike awe in an opponent.
Hey, it takes one to no one.
"That'll be a difficult test, to not be in awe," Andrews said of Friday's 7:30 p.m. regional championship showdown at NorthWood. "But there's no reason our guys should be. I think that will be a test for both sides."
Sure enough, both sides head into their Class 4A collision undefeated, with Andrews' Panthers (12-0) ranked No. 2 in the state and the Bulldogs (11-0) rated No. 3. They're also smack next to each other in the statewide computerized Sagarin Ratings, with New Haven at 83.2 and NorthWood at 82.0.
"Certainly there will be nerves, but if we have enough confidence to go out there and play to our ability, we'll be fine," Andrews said.
Each team has compiled a bevy of imposing numbers. Not only are the Panthers averaging 46.3 points and the Bulldogs 49.0, but both clubs have generally been well on their way to dismissing their victims by intermission, with NorthWood at 28.6 points by the break and New Haven 28.4.
The most notable difference between the two clubs has come in the points-allowed category. The Bulldogs are giving up just 11.0 per game to the Panthers' 18.1. New Haven has six games in which it's held opponents to single digits (including three shutouts) to just two such games for NorthWood (one shutout).
Andrews isn't flinching, though, and there's also the fact that according to those Sagarin Ratings, the Panthers have faced the decidedly tougher schedule.
"Really, our defense has played pretty well lately, and played pretty well last week against East Noble," Andrews said of his team's 52-24 road win in the sectional title game. "If you look at it, they had a couple moon shots and a diving catch that helped them score, and a blocked punt that put the ball on our 9. Our defense has played well and is still continuing to improve."
The Bulldogs' defense, meanwhile, has played "lights out," according to the NorthWood coach.
"For the most part, they want to stay in a two-high or cover-two shell and play ball, and let their safeties clean up the mess, if there is one," Andrews said, "and they've been able to do that to a lot of people."
New Haven's first close game all year, and easily its lowest output, came in last week's 28-23 sectional-title win over No. 8 Fort Wayne Dwenger.
Similar to the Panthers, the Bulldogs have been potent both on the ground and through the air.
Unlike NorthWood, New Haven has featured one main back on the ground.
That's senior NiShawn Jones, who has piled up 1,495 yards and a 9.1 average on 164 carries with 27 touchdowns. He's added another six TDs by way of his 18 catches.
Senior Keshawn Moore triggers the Bulldogs' passing attack. He's 140-of-237 for 2,101 yards and 24 TDs against eight interceptions. His top three receivers each have between 29 and 37 receptions, and each is averaging at least 15.3 yards per grab.
For the Panthers, senior quarterback Trey Bilinski is 174-of-281 for 2,982 yards with 37 TDs against five picks. Favorite targets include, but aren't limited to, DeAndre Smart (50 catches, 979 yards, 13 TDs) and Bronson Yoder (49, 947, 9).
On the ground for NorthWood, Brayton Yoder (961), Bronson Yoder (741) and Payton Bear (639) have combined for 2,341 yards, a 6.9 average and 25 TDs.
"I think we'll have to be assignment-sound, that's for sure," Andrews said in sizing up keys, "but the biggest thing is we'll have to continue to play hard."
If the Panthers win, they'll travel to Hobart (10-2) or Lowell (8-4) for the semistate next week. New Haven would be home to Hobart or at Lowell.
6A: Crown Point (6-5) at Penn (11-0). Radio - 91.1 FM, 95.3 FM, 95.9 FM.