A three-word phrase populated the Bradford football team’s practices throughout the week.
The task at hand remains the same ahead of this year’s trip to Punxsutawney, one the Owls failed to accomplish last season — stop the run.
Given the all-time series context between the Owls and Chucks, the last two meetings between two of District 9’s largest schools have featured their own flair. The Owls dropped a heated Week 7 matchup to the Chucks last season, and in the meeting prior, claimed the program’s most recent victory in a 59-34 shootout in 2019.
Neither of those games matter to the current group of Owls, however.
They’re focused on an opportunity they’ve awaited for months. The opportunity to prove themselves.
“Practices have been going about as well as they can, and I think we’re just excited to go play a game again,” Bradford head coach Jeff Puglio said. “They’ve been working as hard as any group I’ve ever coached. We’ve been going pretty hard since January. We’ve done everything we could to improve this, so we’ll just let it all loose (Friday).”
Led by sophomore quarterback Talan Reese, the Owls will bring their “air raid” offense to Punxsy. They’ll be met with an attack that will look quite the opposite, as the Chucks rarely stray from their run game.
Bradford’s downfall in last season’s 49-21 loss was its inability to stop Punxsy’s rushing attack.
The Owls forced four turnovers in that game, but turned it over four times themselves. With a lead in hand, the Chucks stuck to what was working, and were able to run out the clock and keep Bradford’s offense off the field.
“With our defense, it’s paying attention to our run fits,” Puglio said. “We need to make sure we’re in the right spots. You read your key, react to that and go. I think we were on our heels most of the time last year.”
Zeke Bennett returns to Punxsy’s backfield after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last season. Noah Weaver, the team’s second leading rusher, also returns.
“There might be a little extra motivation, given how the game went down there last year,” Puglio said. “That was at the height of our injuries — we were missing a number of starters that week and had guys out with Covid — so we felt it was a missed opportunity.”
Regardless of their defensive performance, the Owls want to attack quickly and score points through the air.
They got their first look at this year’s offensive packages at Saturday’s scrimmage against Ridgway and Warren. Reese completed 8-of-16 pass attempts on the day, including a touchdown and an interception.
Bradford will use a host of receivers to attack opposing defenses, including senior Lucas Laktash, who compiled three catches for 70 yards and a touchdown in the scrimmage. AJ Gleason, Isaiah Fitton and Matt Perry also pose perimeter threats for the Owls.
“We found some guys (Saturday) that want to compete,” Puglio said. “Our offense was a little slow at times, which kind of surprised me. I think that was nervous. But we saw some guys that want to get after it.”
Reese came on in relief to quarterback the Owls at Punxsy last year, completing 17-of-30 pass attempts for 150 yards and three interceptions.
“Everyone is putting responsibility on (Reese) like he’s been here for four years, but he’s a sophomore,” Puglio said. “As a young quarterback with how much he’s come along and how much he knows, I’m excited for him to showcase what he can do as a sophomore.”
Reese will be one of several young players on which the Owls rely, including Evan Whitmore, a sophomore who earned a starting spot this preseason.
One key to Friday’s game, Puglio said, could be how his team starts the game. After a two-hour bus ride, the Owls will need to find energy to avoid an opening quarter similar to last year’s, when they allowed an onside kick recovery and fell behind, 14-0, early.
“If we get out there and some good things happen early, it will be everything for us,” Puglio said. “With how young we are, if things go poorly to start, it could be tough for them to bounce back because they don’t know how long a game is. There are a lot of plays; one is going to be bad. You need to know how to move on.”
Friday’s matchup will be Bradford’s first game in the District 9 Region 1 conference, composed of the district’s largest schools. And, aside from the excitement brought on by a season opener, the trip will be the team’s first chance to change the negative narrative surrounding Bradford football in recent years.
“I think we need to get off the bus and start fast,” Puglio said. “We’ve struggled with that, and it’s been awhile since I’ve felt like we’ve gotten out to a fast start. I like to get the ball first and get our offense out there. If we have the chance to do that (Friday), we want to take the ball, go out there and put points on the board.”