WATERTOWN — Every regular-season game the Red and Black has played after its 0-3 start has felt like a playoff game.
Tonight’s final regular-season home game versus Mohawk Valley kicks off at 7 at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds, and is no different.
The stakes are clear: a Watertown win combined with a Plattsburgh loss will give the Red and Black the No. 2 seed and a home playoff game two weeks from now. A loss and its playoff seed falls out of its hands.
Watertown will still be a playoff team, but will no longer have control over what seed it earns and therefore might begin the playoffs on the road.
The Red and Black (5-3 overall) expects to suit up the same amount of players as last week, roughly 35. Watertown will return quarterback Jared Hendricks, arguably the biggest key to the offense, but won’t have either running back Tre Smith or quarterback/running back Joe Brennan.
After a hit forced Brennan out of last week’s game midway through the second quarter, he was diagnosed with an MCL sprain in his right knee. The injury won’t require surgery but will sideline the veteran for a few weeks. If all goes well in recovery, it is possible that Brennan can return for the Empire Football League title game on Oct. 5, if Watertown goes that far.
Brennan, unable to play, still attended practice Thursday and wore a brace around his right knee.
“I’ll still be here, being a leader from the sideline, trying to motivate my guys, doing the things that I’ve always done, I just won’t be able to do it on the field,” Brennan said. “I have faith in these guys to get the job done and get us there, and I’ll do whatever I can to help the team get there.”
With both Brennan and Smith out of the lineup, the running responsibilities will fall on T.J. Smith and Curtis Dukes.
Dukes hasn’t received much playing time this year, but coaches believe that will make him fresh.
According to coach George Ashcraft, one of the most important pieces will be Hendricks. He had missed last week’s game versus Glens Falls due to military obligations, but in his six games played this year, he’s recorded 989 passing yards and six touchdowns. He enjoyed particularly good games against Plattsburgh and Tri-City.
Hendricks sees the opportunity to play a home playoff game as a huge advantage.
“That’s a huge deal, because when we’re at home, it’s a different vibe,” Hendricks said. “We can play away, too, but when we’re at home it’s a different atmosphere. We have all of our family and friends here, It’s a way different atmosphere.”
A game as meaningful as tonight’s naturally comes with pressure. But the must-win mentality is something that the Red and Black has felt since early August.
“We started off mad slow, like week four we had the must-win mentality and have carried that all season,” wide receiver Keegan Queior said.
For players like Brennan, Queior, Chris Furr and others who have played for the Red and Black for a number of years, the last few years haven’t lived up to their standards. Playing winning football this year has made the season much more fun.
“Last year was fun but for me, I feel like this year is more fun,” Furr said. “Last year we had new people and they didn’t know anything so we were kind of making sure that they had everything down pat. But this year, I mean yeah we have new people, too, but they come out and they learn quick and they get it. So, we’re able to joke around and have fun, but at the same time learn, too.”
The Red and Black obviously want a home game. This year the team is 3-0 at home and 1-3 on the road with one win by forfeit. But Ashcraft believes that the current team could win no matter where they play.
“I’m still confident to go on the road and win,” Ashcraft said. “The players themselves have matured around one another and are playing together. We didn’t do that in those first three games.”
Watertown began its win streak against Mohawk Valley (4-4) in week four in a 14-7 win on the road — the first sign of the defense coming together, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But Mohawk Valley team greatly improved since that loss. The Nighthawks are since 3-1 in that, a success rate that’s largely due to quarterback Shawn Johnson. In three games (two starts), he’s thrown for 306 total yards and five touchdowns. Last week against Tri City — a game Mohawk Valley lost 34-33 — Johnson completed 11 of 18 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns.