During the preseason, Northern was viewed as a team that would showcase a vanilla and predictable offense. The only mystery for defenses would be to anticipate on which side of the line the Patriots would run the ball.

La Plata entered Thursday night with a 3-0 record. It was left baffled after Northern rolled to a 50-0 victory behind a diversified offensive attack.

"I think we underestimated Northern a bit," Warriors Coach Chris Davidson said. "That team has some weapons that we weren't ready for. . . . They were powerful and explosive and did pretty much what they wanted to."

In his first season playing quarterback, Patriots senior Andrew Athens, an accomplished runner, is growing more comfortable throwing the ball to several targets -- receivers Delante Scott and David Taylor and fullback Joe Stallings -- while A.J. Brown and Eugene Matullo have markedly improved the Patriots' running game from a year ago.

"It's opening up a lot of stuff for us to do," said Athens, who completed 4 of 7 first-half passes for 79 yards and rushed for 72 yards on 12 carries. Athens had attempted only eight passes in the Patriots' first three games combined.

Northern's offense could not be expected to match the heroics of All-Met quarterback Sean Schaefer and his top four receivers, who graduated last spring after leading the Patriots to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. This year's Patriots (3-1 overall, 3-1 SMAC), instead, would have seemed like candidates to put pressure on their defense to earn low-scoring victories.

In each game, however, Northern has gradually expanded its offense, which is critical as it enters a tough two-week stretch with visits to Lackey and Patuxent.

While Athens will be hard pressed to match the accuracy and poise of Schaefer, who is now playing at Towson, Athens offers mobility his predecessor did not have. That allows him to react when plays break down.

Against La Plata, Athens often improvised, turning a called pass into a 15-yard run or finding a receiver as a pass-rusher nearly sacked him.

"I do whatever I have to do to get the job done," Athens said. "If I don't see anything right away, I'll wait and make something happen."

Athens's ability to throw helped Matullo and Brown, who combined to rush for 163 yards and three touchdowns. It will force opposing defenses to spread out.

"We need to be able to throw the ball," Northern Coach A.J. Berberian said. "We have to have people back out of the box on us."

After matching its best start in six years, La Plata (3-1, 3-1) was humbled a bit, playing against its toughest opponent yet.

"Reality set in that we're not at the top of the mountain yet," Davidson said. "We've got a lot of scraping to do."

Northern's Andrew Athens, above, threw for 79 yards in the first half and rushed for 72. Brandon Kelly, right, intercepts a pass near B.J. Conley.Northern running back A.J. Brown, left, tries to get out of the grip of La Plata defender Tyler Shymansky. Northern defender Sean Harris, above, and a teammate attempt to stop La Plata running back Tyler Kisner. Northern improved to 3-1 with its 50-0 win, and La Plata fell to 3-1. Northern's attack expanded from its usual running game.