PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (EYT/D9) — There’s one word being spoken a lot around the Punxsutawney football team these days.
(Above, from left: Justin Miller, Quinton Voelkel, Landon Peterson and head coach Alan Nichol)
That was something the Chucks didn’t do last season during a disappointing 2-7 campaign.
There’s another popular word in Punxsy.
The Chucks have it with 10 starters returning on defense and seven on offense. They are hoping that will help them finish and lead to another word that hasn’t been uttered frequently around the program over the years.
“I think we are (very excited to see if we can take the next step),” said Punxustawney coach Alan Nichol. “We have a lot of guys who have experience and we played some teams really tough. We need to learn how to finish. I think that’s a product of experience and being a year older and playing together another year.”
Punxsutawney hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017 and hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2014.
The Chucks are hoping this year will end both of those droughts while playing in the revamped District 9.
No more Small and Big School divisions. Now there are three regions and Punxsy finds itself in Region 1 with the likes of Bradford, DuBois, St. Marys, Karns City, Moniteau, Brookville and Central Clarion.
There’s talent there on both sides of the ball to potentially crack the upper echelon of that new region.
On offense, it will start up front with four of the five linemen returning. They should serve up plenty of holes for senior running back Zeke Bennett to slither throuygh.
Last year, Bennett was a bright spot. He piled up 986 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground and will be a major weapon again.
The top three leading tacklers are back on defense in juniors Landon Martz (73) and Mason Nesbitt (69) and senior Justin Miller (68), who also had 8½ tackles for a loss out of his strong safety position.
Nichol, though, doesn’t want to put so much of the offensive onus on the shoulders of Bennett, even though the 5-foot-7, 170-pound back proved last year he could carry the load despite his smaller size.
“Bennett averaged 110 yards per game rushing the ball last year, but we’ve got a whole room full of good running backs,” Nichol said. “I think taking the pressure off one guy and making them defend the whole field is going to play out well for us on offense.”
Senior wide receiver Landon Peterson will also see more passes thrown his way this season.
He feels something different this year as opposed to last season, an overwhelming sense of confidence that Punxsutawney is going to turn things around — and turn some heads in the process.
“You could really see it — we were knocking on the door,” Peterson said. “Really, that carried over into the offseason. You could really get the feeling we were ready to take the next step and be a winning football program.
“We know we’re physically capable (of winning games),” Peterson added. “It’s just about mentally focusing on getting there.”
Here comes that word “finish” again.
The second half was not kind to Punxsutawney last season.
“We gotta play the whole game,” said senior offensive and defensive lineman Quinton Voelkel. “Most times we go into halftime maybe up by a touchdown and they score an opening-drive touchdown (to start the second half) and we think it’s over because they tied it up and they’re just going to go ahead now. We don’t feel we can do it. We have to get over the hump of not believing.”
“A lot of games last year we’d start off well in the first half,” Miller added, “then we’d come out in the second half and lay a goose egg.”
Turning that around is easier said than done.
It may just take that one signature win to do it.
“First of all, that’s just a matter of the way we approach every day and focus on getting better every day,” Nichol said. “Then, when we get into the game, understand that there’s gonna be ups and downs. Good things and bad things are gonna happen and just to worry about the next play. That’s something we’ve been preaching.”
Here comes that word “experience” again.
Nichol hopes that will be the magic elixir to help that mental process along.
“I think that’s going to lead to more confidence,” Nichol said. “That’s going to lead to an ability to play 48 minutes of good, solid football and see what happens.”