Phil Wilkinson figured he would be the last Northern player to be confused this season.

Although nearly the entire starting offense was new, Wilkinson was among four returning starters on the line. Let the other guys learn, Wilkinson thought.

But when practice started, the linemen felt like varsity rookies. The Patriots' playbook no longer had the passing plays that All-Met quarterback Sean Schaefer used to lead Northern to its first playoff appearance in 13 years. Now, the offense, led by new quarterback Andrew Athens, would be primarily run-oriented.

That was a tough transition for Wilkinson.

"Everything's changed around our offensive game plan," Wilkinson said. "As a whole group, it took us through two-a-days to figure it out, and still we were making mistakes."

Northern is learning well on the job. The Patriots come into tonight's home game against undefeated La Plata with a stunning change in attack yet the same 2-1 record they had at this point last season.

Led by sophomore running back A.J. Brown's 194 yards, the Patriots have rushed for 402 yards and five touchdowns this season. In 11 games last year, Northern managed only 824 yards rushing.

As a result, the Patriots have attempted only eight passes, completing four for 27 yards. Schaefer, through three games last season, was 35 of 56 for 464 yards. For the season, he threw 226 times for 2,403 yards.

"It took a little while to get used to more running," offensive lineman Cory Gallihugh said. "We were excited because we knew we could carry the team. It's just that nobody noticed us last year when we were throwing the ball all the time. Those long passes, they just look at the play downfield."

Ask a lineman if there's a difference between run and pass blocking, and chances are he'll be laughing. They are two markedly different skills. On running plays, linemen initiate contact, trying to drive defenders away to clear a path for a ball carrier. On passes, it is the opposite. Linemen drop back and protect the quarterback from rushing defenders.

"Run blocking is a lot more fun," Gallihugh said. "You just come off the ball and hit someone. With pass blocking, you have to wait for someone to come at you."

Run blocking, however, is more demanding physically, said Ricky Moore, who started the season on the line but is now only playing on the defensive front.

"Pass blocking is more isolated. You worry about your guy, and that's about it," Moore said. Run blocking "is a lot more thinking and a lot more physical. You also get a lot more fatigued."

But that weariness disappears on a big run.

"Once your running back breaks it big, and you're running after him downfield [to make another block], there's nothing like it," Moore said. "It's the best feeling."

Westlake at Chopticon

When: 7 p.m. today.

Records: Westlake (3-0, 3-0), Chopticon (0-2, 0-2).

Last week: Westlake defeated Calvert, 41-0. Chopticon's game against Huntingtown was rescheduled for Oct. 18.

Last meeting: Westlake won, 40-16, on Sept. 27.

Outlook: Forget the records. Forget that Chopticon hasn't defeated the Wolverines since 2000. Westlake Coach Dominic Zaccarelli said Chopticon always gives his team trouble. Westlake rested running backs Pha'Terrell Washington and Darius Harris last week, and they should be back in the lineup. The week off gave a banged-up Chopticon a much-needed break because no SMAC team is as physical as Westlake.

Huntingtown at Great Mills

When: 7 p.m. today.

Records: Huntingtown (0-2, 0-2), Great Mills (0-3, 0-3).

Last week: Huntingtown's game with Chopticon was rescheduled for Oct. 18. Great Mills lost to Lackey, 27-6.

First meeting.

Outlook: On the surface, it's a small step, but Great Mills showed last week that no SMAC opponent should take it lightly. The Hornets stood tough against Lackey and refused to be intimidated by the defending conference champion. Now, they face a team perhaps just as hungry as they are to get their first victory. Huntingtown still has a bad taste in its mouth from its last time on the field, a 21-0 loss to Northern. Five weeks have passed since the start of practice. Will the Hurricanes' offense begin to click?

Lackey at Leonardtown

When: 7 p.m. today.

Records: Lackey (3-0, 3-0), Leonardtown (0-3, 0-3).

Last week: Lackey defeated Great Mills, 27-6. Leonardtown lost to La Plata, 18-3.

Last meeting: Lackey won, 47-0, on Sept. 27.

Outlook: Last week Lackey, last year's runner-up in Maryland 3A, led Great Mills, which has not won since 2002, 13-6 midway through the third quarter. It was then that the Chargers realized they would not win games on talent alone. Whether they learned that, Lackey Coach Scott Chadwick said, will be determined over the next couple weeks. Expect senior All-Met running back Morgan Green to play despite an ailing hamstring. He rushed 29 times for 164 yards last week.

Thomas Stone at Calvert

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Records: Thomas Stone (3-0, 3-0), Calvert (0-3, 0-3).

Last week: Thomas Stone defeated Patuxent, 21-7. Calvert lost to Westlake, 41-0.

Last meeting: Thomas Stone won, 14-0, on Sept. 27.

Outlook: No SMAC team is flying higher than Thomas Stone, following an inspired performance against Patuxent that certified the Cougars as a contender for a playoff spot. The next two weeks will be critical, though, to see if they can maintain that intensity against winless Calvert and Chopticon before facing their four Charles County rivals.

McDonough at Patuxent

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Records: McDonough (2-1, 2-1), Patuxent (1-2, 1-2).

Last week: McDonough lost to Northern, 14-12. Patuxent lost to Thomas Stone, 21-7.

Last meeting: Patuxent won, 33-10, on Sept. 27.

Outlook: This might be the SMAC's biggest game of the week, if only because both teams are coming off losses. McDonough had the ball deep in Northern's territory in the final minute before turning it over. After slipping through the mud last weekend, the Rams need a clean field, which would give their running backs a boost in confidence. Patuxent, which was coming off an overtime loss at Westlake, fumbled on Thomas Stone's half of the field (including once on the 5-yard line) on its first two possessions. From there, the Panthers' offense struggled. Patuxent knows three losses will severely hurt its playoff aspirations in the Maryland 4A East region.

Sophomore A.J. Brown has accounted for 194 of Northern's 402 yards rushing. The team had 824 yards rushing all of last season.