By Matt Popchock
On Saturday 34 of the top outgoing high school football seniors from Ohio blasted a similar team representing Pennsylvania 50-14 in the 54th annual Big 33 Football Classic at Hersheypark Stadium. Ohio has now won three Big 33 games in a row, and six of the last nine.
So what? What does this glorified exhibition game, considered Pennsylvania’s premier all-star event in scholastic sports, teach us about football in western PA and beyond?
Here’s what Mr. High School Sports learned from his own Big 33 experience:
*If what happened Saturday is any guide, high school football in the state of Pennsylvania has taken a step backward, and high school football in the state of Ohio has taken a step forward. That is not to say the cupboard is bare around these parts. There is still worthy Division I talent in the Commonwealth, especially in the WPIAL, and there always will be. But the talent in Ohio is simply better right now, particularly at the skill positions, especially quarterback, and in the trenches. It’s no wonder to me that teams from Ohio, at least in the Cleveland and Cincinnati areas, received far more national exposure last season.
*Not only did the Ohio team execute better offensively, and play harder on defense, but in my opinion, Matt Dennison and his staff significantly out-coached Tim Rimpfel and his. When I look at Rimpfel’s resume, it’s one that demands a great deal of respect, certainly for its longevity, if nothing else. Having said that, I think the Pennsylvania squad might need a new direction and a different voice if it wishes not to get embarrassed again next year. I realize how difficult it is to get 11 guys on the same page when you have just a few days to practice; nevertheless, the Ohio team seemed much more organized offensively, especially throughout the first half, and seeing PA’s defense line up without safeties on multiple plays that led to touchdowns was a head-scratcher. Besides, you can’t fire a gun without bullets, and it is the coaching staff’s responsibility to make sure the best players get the most optimal exposure, especially considering the goal of the game is to showcase the top players at every position. Other than some mysterious disciplinary reason I’m not aware of, it is beyond me why West Catholic’s Brandon Holloman did not see any playing time at tailback. You’re going to tell me a First-Team All-PIAA selection couldn’t do anything to jump-start a struggling offense? Cut me a break.
*In some small ways, the game has lost a bit of caché, some would argue. The Big 33 used to be held in the middle of the summer, but has been moved up due to the trend of incoming freshmen taking summer courses through their respective colleges in order to stay on top of academics. As a result, the best players don’t always appear, and the event planners get less time to hype the game. That really doesn’t bother me very much, but I just wish the event were staged a little better. There was music playing during the contest inadvertently, but quite egregiously, at one point; there was little, if any, explanation given on questionable calls (before people call me a homer, let me point out that said calls went in Pennsylvania’s favor); and stadium wi-fi was disappointingly unreliable. That last complaint may seem petty, I know, but in fairness, this is a new era in mass media, and in my opinion, it’s a complaint that needs rectified if the Big 33 is to be fully prepared to receive the hype it gives.
*A lot of Pennsylvania’s incoming college talent at the skill positions seems to be coming from the east. Lafayette Pitts had a solid career at Woodland Hills, and I could see him being an impact player at Pitt, and as long as Armstead Williams of Gateway can completely put that ACL injury in his rear-view mirror, he should be a serviceable receiver at Purdue. But on Saturday it was the eastern PA kids who really jumped off the page at me on offense. Rutgers recruit Tyler Kroft had a strong game representing Downingtown East, and although his accuracy left something to be desired, Temple recruit Jalen Fitzpatrick from Harrisburg showed some athleticism at QB. His scrambling capability should serve him well in the MAC. Speaking of Rutgers, they should be very happy with Sean Barowski of Bishop McDevitt, the 2010 Class AAA First-Team All-PIAA linebacker, who showed some nice power at the fullback spot while winning PA MVP honors in this game. Harrisburg receiver Quinton Sullivan made a couple nice plays, and for a high school senior out of a Quad-A school with a list of accomplishments like his own, I’m frankly surprised he won’t be playing for a Division I school this fall. In addition, Jameel Poteat gave University of Cincinnati football fans like myself a taste of his ability on Saturday, as the Bishop McDevitt senior, who made CBS recruiting expert Tom Lemming’s top 100 as a tailback, had some nice kick returns.
*By the way, if the old adage about teams that run the ball effectively going the farthest is true, UC should be in good shape the next few years with Poteat and Akise Teague from Youngstown Ursuline in the backfield. Teague, who made three touchdowns to receive Ohio MVP honors in Saturday’s game, was, by far, the best player on either side, and clearly not a MaxPreps top 50 running back for nothing. Teague displayed exceptional footwork and made some really good defenders look silly. Tough decisions await Butch Jones, but those are the kind of tough decisions you want.
*Probably the only bright spot along the line for PA was the play of Clairton’s Desimon Green, the Texas Tech recruit, who made four tackles and generated a turnover. That’s a tough loss for Todd Graham and Pitt, as Green hits as hard as he runs. I could foresee him being the kind of player in college who can single-handedly take over a game, just like he did with the Bears. On both sides, however, the greatest common denominator was the defensive front as a whole. Woodland Hills linebacker Ejuan Price, who reneged on his OSU commitment for presumable reasons, played a typically hard-nosed game, and his addition to Pitt’s recruiting class helps compensate for the loss of Green in the sense that both can be impact players, in my opinion. Michigan recruit Antonio Poole represented Cincinnati Winton Woods beautifully by constantly blowing the doors off PA’s O-line and recording a game-high six tackles, while fellow linebacker and Toledo recruit Gabe Gilbert, coming from state powerhouse Colerain, contributed four tackles. With the exception of some great plays by Teague, both sides looked decent against the run.
*I can’t speak for our neighbors, because the Ohio turnout looked comparatively low, but the turnout on the Pennsylvania side of Hersheypark Stadium was quite strong, so clearly, as exhibition games go, people really seem to get amped up for this one. I feel bad for the Ohio portion of the crowd, because those who didn’t make the trip missed a really dominant effort by their kids on the interstate stage, while conversely, it’s a darn shame the Pennsylvania team didn’t put up a better fight, because they were very well supported.
Be sure to revisit 937thefan.com later this week for coverage of the Penn-Ohio All-Star Classic at Geneva College!