UPPER DUBLIN - When Upper Merion High's football team began this year with a 3-1 record, there was talk of making a run at a Suburban One League title, making the Class AAA playoffs and perhaps even scheduling a few late-season games at Lincoln Financial Field.
But five straight losses later, there's little talk of such things now, save earning a district playoff berth - and that's a long shot at best.
According to head coach Harold Smith, in order for the Vikings to earn what would likely be a first-round meeting against Pottsgrove next week, they would have to see Wissahickon top Upper Moreland, Academy Park defeat Chichester and Methacton get the better of Phoenixville.
Those three scenarios are possible, maybe even probable. But Upper Merion is responsible for the fourth leg of this playoff superfecta - the Vikings (3-6, 1-5) must defeat host Upper Dublin (8-1, 5-1).
With a Class AAAA playoff berth in their future and coming off a tough-to-swallow loss to Plymouth Whitemarsh that probably cost them a Suburban One League American Conference title, there's no way the Cardinals will be anything but ravenous when it comes to their regular-season finale.
"We need a mini-miracle,' Smith said as his team prepared to take on a team it has not beaten since 2004. "We need all of those things to happen, and we need to win. And against Upper Dublin, that's not going to be easy.'
Smith said one factor has jumped out this week as he has watched Upper Dublin on film.
"They do a heck of a job coaching,' Smith said. "You watch them in all situations, and their kids do what they're supposed to do - all the time.'
And that, according to Smith, is what the Vikings coaching staff has been seeking all year.
"We just haven't put a full game together,' he said. "We have played well in spurts. We'll force four three-and-outs in a row, then on the next series we'll give up a 75-yard touchdown.
"If we have a chance to beat Upper Dublin, we're going to have to be sound in all phases of the game.'
Smith added that is a tall order for any team on any Friday night. But against the Cardinals, a mistake is usually followed by an extra-point attempt.
"You look at their offense, and the first thing that jumps out at you is (quarterback John) Derr,' Smith said of the senior who leads the team in rushing and passing yardage. "He's so solid, he's a big kid and he runs their offense so well.
"Our goal, defensively, is to try and keep the ball out of his hands. When he does get it, we have to make him make throws, make them drive the length of the field and earn their points.'
As for the Vikings offense, Smith said he wouldn't mind a few seven- or eight-minute drives that end in points.
"We need to keep the ball away from them,' Smith said, "and we can't make errors that cost us points.'
As he did a week ago, Isaiah Graham-Mobley will start at quarterback for Upper Merion, although Smith said Carmen Fortino, who Graham-Mobley replaced two weeks ago against Wissahickon, has had reps in practice this week.
"(Graham-Mobley) said he was nervous last week, making his first start at home,' Smith said. "But he came out in the second half, was relaxed and played pretty well. And Carmen caught two touchdown passes. So we'll see what happens.'
As for the Cardinals, they took some time to mentally recover from last week's tough loss to PW, but know what's at stake and what they're facing this week.
"We definitely had a hangover,' said Cardinals head coach Bret Stover, "but we're ready to go.
"I don't know what it is, but we've had a lot of tough games with (Upper Merion) over the years, and they certainly have the athletes to beat us. We've seen them when they've put their game together, and they can be deadly.'
As for how the game will unfold, look for Upper Dublin to play it close to the vest. With a playoff berth secured, there's no need for the Cardinals to do anything but stick to the game plan that has served them well all season long.
As for the Vikings, they'll have to push the pace of the game, take some shots downfield offensively and bring pressure defensively. To sit back and let the Cardinals dictate tempo won't get them to the playoffs.
And above all else, the Vikings have to play a clean game. Turnovers and mental mistakes have to be kept to a minimum if Upper Merion is to pull off the shocker.
As for the playoffs, Smith said that hasn't been a topic of conversation this week.
"All we're trying to do is win the game,' he said. "We're not talking about playoffs, we're talking about getting one win.'
On the injury front, Upper Dublin tackle Tyler Berish's availability will be a game-time decision due to injury.