FORTVILLE — Doug Armstrong doesn’t claim to possess the secret formula to winning. The 16-year coaching veteran just knows what it takes, and it starts with the little things.
From drills to execution, every action plays a role toward success; the Mt. Vernon head coach said, and his team’s goals are no different.
Through 10 weeks, Armstrong’s Marauders (7-3) have achieved those goals with incremental steps, which has the program humming along on a six-game winning streak and two more victories away from a potential sectional title.
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“When we were 1-3 earlier this season, we set a five-game goal. When that was over, we reset to a three-game goal,” Armstrong said. “I want myself, the coaches and all the players to give the team, the school and the community the best they can for three weeks.
“We’ve had great efforts and focus so far. We’re just trying to get step two accomplished.”
The second rung in their postseason journey is a rematch with Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Pendleton Heights (3-7) at home Friday night in the Class 4A Sectional 22 semifinals at 7 p.m.
A familiar foe, the Marauders knocked off the Arabians 28-9 during the regular season on Sept. 23 en route to a 6-1 HHC record and second place in the conference.
However, if the past has any bearing, nothing is certain when these two teams tangle twice in the same year. The Arabians dropped the first meeting 35-7 in 2015 only to avenge the loss in the sectional semifinals 41-7.
In 2010, the Arabians followed the same pattern, winning in the first-round of the sectional. The first of only two sweeps went to Pendleton Heights in 2011. The second went to Mt. Vernon in 2012, the last time the Marauders clinched a sectional championship.
“It’s a big game, and you want to advance, so whatever you have to do to figure out and win it is what you have to do,” Armstrong said. “What we’ve been able to do has worked for us so far.”
Through their streak, the Marauders’ compartmental approach has helped them discovered how to be dynamic on offense, producing 1,105 yards passing and 1,227 yards rushing with a combined 25 touchdowns.
More significant, said Armstrong, the team has only committed three turnovers compared to 10 in the first four weeks of the season while adjusting to their new spread offense.
“The kids were learning new things, and the turnovers were a problem that has been reduced,” Armstrong said. “We’re trying not to hurt ourselves.
“In the beginning of the year we were averaging around 12 points a game. Now, we’re (at 25.8), so it’s been an increase in our offensive production that’s helped us on this streak.”
The unselfish efficiency of junior quarterback Zac Montgomery and running back Eric Jones have proven a key piece to the team’s steady transformation.
When called upon to air it out, Montgomery has responded with three games of 200 yards or more passing since Week 5. He threw for 292 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Marauders’ last game against the Arabians.
In two of the past four weeks, Montgomery has posted 100-plus yards rushing, including a season-best 144 yards and three touchdowns Sept. 30.
“We struggled a little bit early in the season, but I think we’re starting to fire on all cylinders,” Montgomery said. “The problem early was it was either passing or running on offense. Rarely was it both. Here lately, we’ve been able to do both or excel at what they’ve given us to win.”
Jones has become a bona fide go-to in the backfield with four straight 100-plus yard rushing performances, highlighted by a season-high 195 yard breakout game in the regular-season finale against Yorktown. He rushed for four touchdowns and hauled in another from Montgomery during the game.
“We’ve improved a lot over the past couple of weeks,” Jones said. “But we wouldn’t be where we are with the running game, if it wasn’t for blocks. They have a good mentality up front. They go out there with a head on a swivel.”
The offensive line has fueled the Marauders, enabling them to run 293 plays over the past six games and average 34 points per game.
With senior Kreig Frye at left tackle, junior Conner Nelson at right tackle, senior Nick Anderson at left guard, senior Jackson Bond at right guard, and senior Peyton Wuerch at center, the offense has produced 3,428 total yards this season.
“Our offensive line has been a cohesive group, and we’ve able to run the football, which opens up a lot of things for our passing game,” Armstrong said.
A small move by the coaching staff ended up making the largest impact on the line when Nelson was shifted from defensive tackle and replaced by senior John Hanson, who previously started at offensive tackle.
Since the position switch, both have flourished in addition to the team’s dedication to preparation and finding a rhythm.
“Honestly, I’ve been more on key with my receivers, and that’s been a big thing. We’ve been staying late after practice and working together on routes,” Montgomery remarked. “At the beginning of the season I was looking to throw even when the receivers weren’t open. I made a lot of mistakes and threw a couple of dumb interceptions.
“Lately, I’ve been trying to look to run more because the line has been doing great. Whatever it takes to beat Pendleton.”
A seventh straight victory will come down to the details, Armstrong said, and staying grounded in the challenge at hand.
“What is it now, six?,” Montgomery joked when discussing the team’s streak. “Honestly, we don’t even think about it. We’re so focused on the week.
“After these three weeks, we get to reset it. That’s how we’re approaching it.”
6: The Marauders have turned a 1-3 start to the season into a 7-3 campaign with a six-game winning streak.
13: While adjusting to a new offensive scheme the Marauders averaged 13.5 point per game through the first four weeks.
34: Since winning against Delta, 20-19, on Sept. 16, Mt. Vernon has averaged 34.0 points per game.
18: During the Marauders’ streak, they’ve won with a 17.8 point average margin of victory.
11: The Marauders’ longest winning streak prior to their six-game run reached 11 in 2012, the same year Mt. Vernon won sectional.
4: Running back Eric Jones has posted four straight 100-plus yard performances the past six weeks.
8: Eric Jones has scored eight touchdowns (six rushing) during the Marauders’ six-week run.
3: Through six games the Marauders have only committed three turnovers compared to 10 the first four games.
5: Quarterback Zac Montgomery has passed for 150 yards or more five times this year, including four 200-plus yards efforts.
12: Zac Montgomery has passed for 12 touchdowns compared to two interceptions since Week 4.