Aquinas, to borrow from former National Football League coach Dennis Green, is what most people who follow area high school football believe the team would be at this point.
The Little Irish are 6-0 and have won their games with ease. Is Aquinas one of the best Class AA teams in the state? There is an indicator Saturday, according to the New York State Sportswriters Association state rankings.
Aquinas, No. 3 in the rankings, plays its first game under the lights this season when it hosts No. 1 Buffalo Canisus (6-0), 7 p.m. Saturday. Canisius is the reigning Catholic High School Athletic Association state champion.
Five things to know:
1. There is a sizable history sample: There are college football teams in the same conference that play each other less than Aquinas and Canisius. This is at least the 20th consecutive year the teams at private high schools meet during the regular season. Aquinas has won 17 of those matchups, but Canisius has come out on top in two of the last three. Canisius defeated Aquinas 34-0 last season, after right-handed Aquinas quarterback Jake Zembiec left the game with a broken left wrist.
2. The Little Irish and Crusaders know how to pile points: The Crusaders are scoring 34 points a game, with an offense that includes spread formations and power running. Cole Burniston, a junior listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is the top ball carrier at Canisius with 711 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Justin Jones, a 6-3 senior, has six of the nine Canisius touchdown receptions. He is one of two players with 300 or more receiving yards. Senior quarterback Tyler Stranahan has passed for 154 yards a game.
Zembiec is having a “great” season, according to Aquinas coach Chris Battaglia. The 6-3, 215-pound quarterback’s numbers are notable, especially the 20 touchdown passes and the 69 completion percentage. The Little Irish seem to throw the ball much more than Canisius, as Zembiec, who gave a verbal commitment to play at Penn State last November, has 1,417 passing yards. Earnest Edwards a senior with 11, senior Jamir Jones (six), junior Jalen Pickett (two) and junior Jason Hawkes (one) have touchdown receptions.
3. No more worries about the Aquinas defense: “Obviously, at the beginning of the year we were a bit worried about how our defense would react to all of the losses (because of graduations),” Jones said. “I think everyone has stepped up. I think we’ve (the first-string defense) has allowed only (20) points. That’s pretty good.”
“It’s fast. It’s smashmouth, aggressive, just suffocating. We like to make people run sideline to sideline and then when they try to do that, we are already there.’’
Jones, a linebacker with a verbal to play at Notre Dame, and junior Jack Owens each have 4.5 sacks. Senior end Taylor Riggins, who plans to play at Syracuse, has three.
4. Will the teams play with intensity? Canisius and Aquinas, beginning next week, are playoff bound. Aquinas sits in the slot for the No. 1 seed in the Section V Class AA tournament, but the top four teams all host first-round games. The Little Irish are guaranteed to remain in the top four.
“Their style doesn’t change,” Battaglia said. “They are hard-nosed, tough kids and well-coached. I mean, the last four years every game has been a battle with them.”
5. Keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed. The last time Aquinas finished the regular season without a loss, was Zembiec’s sophomore and first year with the varsity. Aquinas finished 13-0 and Zembiec was the state’s player of the year in Class AA. The Little Irish are already the team to beat in sectionals. A win over a state champion may underline that.