The Italy Gladiators are just one win away from playing for a state championship.

They have to get through the Stamford Bulldogs tonight first though.

The Gladiators (9-4, 5-0 in 6-1A) and the Bulldogs (12-1, 4-0 in 4-1A) will clash at 7:30 p.m. at Mineral Wells for a shot to play at Cowboys Stadium Dec. 20. But despite the nerves that are sure to be there this week, the team’s coach thinks the team is handling it well.

“We’re trying not to do anything different than we did in the previous weeks,” Italy coach Hank Hollywood said. “As a coaching staff, if we act nervous that could throw them off. If anything, they are ready for the game. I think they want to get away from me yelling at them on the practice field.”

While the yelling on the practice field may be over, expect some more noise this week as Italy tries to contain the high-powered offense of Stamford, which is led by dual-threat senior quarterback Hagen Hutchinson.

“They like to throw the ball. But if you try to stay over the top of them, their QB will run it,” Hollywood said. “We’ve got to devise a plan to stop him from doing both and its easier said than done.”

That’s definitely true as Hutchinson has thrown for 2,607 yards this year and ran for 1,358. His 3,965 yards of offense account for 68 percent of Stamford’s 5,824 offensive yards this season. So his ability to do everything with the football will put extra pressure on the Italy defense.

“We’ve got to rally to the ball and make sure guys are in the right position,” Hollywood said. “We’ve played a couple teams that like to pass so we’ve seen this before. The kids know about it and they study it. It’s just a matter of executing.”

Don’t forget that they practice against another tough dual-threat quarterback nearly every day with the Gladiators’ own Marvin Cox. He missed the first four games of the season so his numbers aren’t as gaudy as Hutchinson’s, but that doesn’t mean that he’s less effective.

In the three playoff games, Cox has completed 12 of his 22 passes for 122 yards and rushed for 420 yards and six touchdowns.

 He’s joined in the backfield by the other main part of Italy’s offense, running back Ryheem Walker. The senior has rushed for 1,767 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season, 421 yards and three scores in the three playoff games. His scoring run last week in the third quarter versus Goldthwaite sealed the team’s victory in the 14-3 game.

Hollywood thinks Stamford’s defense is very similar to what he saw last week in Goldthwaite.

“I think Stamford’s defense is as good as Goldthwaite’s. When you get to this point, there aren’t any sorry teams left,” Hollywood said. “They’ve earned the right to be here and I think their defense is under appreciated because of how good their offense is.”

Stamford’s defense is stout. It allows just 13.1 points a game while the offense is racking up points at an average of 42.2 a game. Italy is only scoring 29.5 points a game and it is allowing 19.7. 

The coach also wants to get credit to his scout team for helping them prepare for this week and all of their playoff games.

“I’ve been proud of the scout kids this week,” Hollywood said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important they are to football teams, but they’ve given us a really good look at things we need to be ready for in the playoffs.”

Due to injuries, the JV team had to cancel its final three games of the season. So it has been about two months since the JV team got to play in one of its own games.