Jon Hanks doesn't apologize for it. It's football pared down to its essence, no matter how much some try to re-engineer the sport.

Football is a physical thing, a game of hitting. A willingness, even desire, for contact is at the heart of why Benilde-St. Margaret's is 9-0 and ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press statewide Class 4A football polls heading into its section final showdown Friday against St. Paul Academy/Minnehaha/Blake, the defending state champion in that class.

These guys won't back down.

"We have to be physical because everyone is a little bigger than we are," said Hanks, now in his 15th season as head coach (he was co-head coach with Patrick Krieger through 2016). "We've got to be physical and not take a lot of crap from anybody."

For senior linebacker/running back Joe Marinaro, that philosophy suits him well. He relishes the contact and the opportunity to go mano-a-mano with an opponent. It's a challenge he wins more often than not but, before this season, one he had missed since ninth grade because of injuries that robbed him of his sophomore and junior seasons.

This season, however, Marinaro has been making up for lost time.

"I like hitting. A lot," he said. "There's a bunch of guys on the offensive line, and the defense that take pride in our big hits. We don't want to do it dirty, and I think we've done a good job at being clean, but would I rather run over somebody than run around them? I would, for sure."

Of course, there's more to the Red Knights' winning ways than simply wearing down opponents. Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic school that prides itself in its academic standards, is more calculating than cave men.

"We're physical, sure, but we use this more as a weapon than anything else," said Hanks, gesturing toward his brain. "These kids are wicked smart. Their feedback is important to us. If they come off the field and say, 'I think we can take advantage of their guard or tackle because he can't move,' that's all information we can use."

Now in second year as a starter — third if you count his part-time status in his sophomore season — quarterback Nick Peterson personifies the dualities of the Benilde-St. Margaret's experience. He's tough, as evidenced by his ability to a play for six weeks with a cast on his right wrist (not his throwing hand). And he's smart.

"He's the most underrated kid," Hanks said. "His passer rating is phenomenal. He reads defenses and takes care of our offense. He gets us into the right plays. He's just really sharp."

Perhaps Peterson's biggest strength is his acumen when it comes to what the Red Knights need and when. With an offensive line that excels at pushing opponents around and quality running backs — including Marinaro, Camden Royal, William Petty, Malik Robertson and the recently returned Isaiah Smith — he's smart enough to know that his best bet is usually to just hand the ball off.

But he's not averse to throwing when opponents load up to stop the run. He passed for a season-high 247 yards and threw two first-half touchdown passes on Saturday in a 50-16 rout of rival Holy Angels.

Whatever it takes, from the first man to the last, the Red Knights are singularly focused on the only thing that matters: Winning football games.

"Every day, every practice, every rep is important to us," Peterson said. "Make sure nothing is taken for granted."

That's the way Hanks wants it. Other teams might be able to match their talent, but the Red Knights are not going to be outworked. Nor outhit.

"We get kids from Edina to Brooklyn Park to Brooklyn Center to Minneapolis. We're our own unique selves and we all come together under coach Hanks, who is a little tougher than most coaches," Peterson said. "We all rally around his personality."

Said Hanks, "You've got to love to hit. You're going to be hit on every play, so if you don't love it, you're not going to have any fun. This team embraces it. They love getting after people and they love their teammates. They're just a joy to be around."