By Matt Popchock
Montour senior tailback Julian Durden tried to contain his smile when addressing the media in the bowels of Heinz Field Saturday afternoon.
The forward-pointing arrow shaved into his head, however, could not be more conspicuous.
“Where is the arrow pointing?” one reporter asked.
“To the end zone,” said the Kent State recruit with a smirk.
Say what you will about his sense of fashion, but there’s nothing wrong with Durden’s sense of direction.
He found the end zone four times in the performance of a lifetime, racking up 159 yards rushing on 17 carries in Montour’s 42-14 romp over Knoch (12-1) in the WPIAL Class AAA Championship.
“The opportunity was there, so it was taken,” Durden added. “The line-blocking has excellent, and when we wanted to run, the hole was wide open, and all I had to do was run through it.”
These Knights had indeed been run through, though they were as classy as their fan base in defeat. Even in the game’s final moments, practically the entire population of Saxonburg seemed to fill the lower bowl and remained as noisy in the game’s final moments as they were leading up to what proved to be the final day of an emotionally taxing season for their team.
“I’ve never, ever, as a player or a coach, seen that outpour of support through thick and thin. My heart is warmed by our team, our community, and our high school,” said head coach Mike King, who was trying to lead Knoch to its first championship since 1978.
“For me it was mixed emotion,” said running back Andrew Rumberg-Goodlin. “It was pride from playing on the same field where the Steelers play, and there’s the slight pain of losing. But for me, the pride overwhelms that pain.”
The Spartans (11-2) celebrated their first district title in football since 1964 after falling just short in 2007 and 2010.
“That’s obviously something we’ve talked about during the week. We knew Coach Lou had lost here twice before, so we wanted to get that win for him,” quarterback Dillon Buechel said.
“The focus level this week was unbelievable,” Cerro said. “Our kids just wanted to play well at Heinz Field after what happened last year, and I think they got that done today.”
Buechel was a very efficient 10 of 17 for 184 yards and the game’s first touchdown. He found Devin Wilson over the middle for a 12-yard score, his WPIAL-leading 36th TD pass of the season, to give Montour a 7-0 lead with 2:17 left in the first quarter. That’s when Durden–and his hair–began to point the way.
But first Buechel had to pave the path, which he did all night. Darren Massey’s interception of Ky Kenyon early in the second quarter put Montour back in business. After Buechel found Sherrod Naylor for a 61-yard hit-and-run, Durden capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown, his 27th of the season, that put the Spartans up by a pair little more than two minutes into the period.
Kenyon struggled to 119 yards on 11-of-21 passing with one touchdown. He entered Saturday with over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 29 total TD’s, but Montour’s defense limited him to 136 scattered yards of offense. The Knights, as a team, were out-gained, 371-190.
“We’ve made some changes [in the past month], and defensively, I think we hit our stride tonight,” Cerro said. “Knoch has some size up front, but I thought we were able to match it. Our kids flew to the fall, and they’d been flying to the ball all week in practice.”
The Spartans had Knoch stuck on one first down for much of the first half–the Knights finished with only eight–and they held Rumberg-Goodlin to 26 yards.
“I would have liked to run the ball more,” King said. “They did take us out of our gameplan a bit.”
That defense forced a subsequent three-and-out, and Wilson made two big catches to put them back into Knoch territory. Durden then ran off left tackle and sprinted down the sideline, sneaking inside the pylon for his second TD of the game and a 21-0 Montour advantage midway through the quarter.
Once again, Knoch was stymied, and Buechel picked up where he left off, marching his offense back within striking distance. On his third carry of the drive, Durden took a delayed handoff and burst up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown with 1:09 left, and Montour carried a stunning 28-0 cushion into halftime.
“Everything is timing-based, and we did a great job of executing,” Durden said of the offense, which has averaged over 38 points per game.
Early in the second half, the Knights’ offense, which had averaged a robust 38.5 per game, found a glimmer of hope. A punt shanked by Wilson allowed Kenyon to produce his 21st TD pass of the year, a six-yard strike to Alex Strezeski, with still 10:16 remaining in the third quarter.
Durden, however, erased any notions of another championship collapse by the Spartans on Montour’s very next play from scrimmage. He headed up the middle and broke loose in the Knoch secondary for a 73-yard sprint that gave him his fourth touchdown and regained the four-touchdown lead.
“Looking back at the last few weeks, not just last week, it was no easy road to get here. You feel like, when you have to take that tough road, and the road gets tough at Heinz, that you can come through,” King lamented. “We didn’t battle back. We got behind, and we just couldn’t contain their offense.”
But once again, King’s kids, including Kenyon, kept perspective.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to look around at each other and say we got here after everything we’ve been through, It’s a great feeling knowing that we did this together, and that we got even closer throughout the season,” Kenyon said.
Aaron Reed made the running clock possible with an interception and subsequent one-yard run just a minute later, and Kenyon’s four-yard sneak in the final seconds was the last bump in the road before a much-anticipated moment in the history of Montour’s program.
“For me, as a junior, it just makes me want to get back here ten times more next year,” Massey said.
“It’s a lifetime memory,” Durden agreed.
“That kid is big-time,” King said of Class AAA’s second-ranked rusher, whose arrow now points toward upcoming opponent Grove City, “and Buechel does a good job finding his receivers. That’s a state championship-caliber football team.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)