By Matt Popchock
So which is more difficult, winning a WPIAL title or defending it?
If you talked to any of Art Walker’s kids, you’d think the magnificence of last fall never took place. The veteran coach, who has led not one, but two Quad-A programs to gridiron glory on the district and state levels, has done a fine job keeping them focused on the road ahead.
So here’s another tough question. Which is harder, winning your biggest game of the season with a second-string quarterback, or doing it again one week later?
Jim Render probably has a good answer for that one. But is the question moot?
All eyes will be on his Panthers (11-1) as they warm up on the not-quite-frozen tundra of Heinz Field Saturday evening in preparation for the 2011 WPIAL Class AAAA Football Championship against defending champ North Allegheny (12-0).
As was the case in 2006, the last time USC made it to Heinz Field (and won), those eyes will be trained upon No. 23. This time, however, they’ll be looking to see whether a hoodie and sweats or a full uniform accompany that No. 23.
Render hinted after last Friday’s dramatic WPIAL Semifinal victory over nationally-ranked Pittsburgh Central Catholic at Chartiers Valley Stadium that what was reportedly a broken foot might be well enough for quarterback and Pitt defensive back recruit Dakota Conwell to return to action.
If Conwell is good to go, it’ll give N.A.’s defense, which is allowing less than 15 points per game, something extra to ponder. Arguably the top dual-threat signal-caller in the WPIAL, Conwell sliced and diced his way just shy of 1,000 rushing yards, averaging well over eight per attempt, and completed 60% of his passes for 1,075 yards. In addition, his 30 total TD’s made him one of the district’s top point-getters before he went down.
Enter junior backup Pete Coughlin. His Herculean effort against the favored Vikings last week, which included 209 rushing yards, a 73-yard scoring run, and a late TD pass to Mike Wilcox, earned him UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Athlete of the Week honors from us here at 93.7 The Fan and put the third-seeded Panthers into the promised land.
As Render aptly pointed out after last week’s playoff contest, the best thing the offense has going in its favor entering this weekend is that Coughlin has a big game under his belt and has proven he can thrive in the spotlight, if necessary.
Either way, Wilcox is coming into his own as an impact receiver. He’s very agile, and once you see him play, you won’t be surprised he leads USC’s receiving corps with ten touchdowns and 612 yards, an average of well over 20 per grab. As long as Conwell or Coughlin get the ball in his vacinity, he can challenge the Tigers’ secondary.
Render joked with me (yes, we said “joked”) that he would have trouble sleeping Friday night. At least he can rest easier knowing whichever QB starts will be well-protected. Linemen and Northwestern recruits Ian Park and Jack Schwaba have collectively elevated their game in the postseason.
One of the chief reasons Upper St. Clair is within reach of district gold is its hogs. The line has done a phenomenal job controlling the line of scrimmage, especially for a defense that is allowing only 8.6 points per game, second-fewest in Quad-A, and six shutouts.
Furthermore, they’re create space for a running game that has played some inspired football of its own in November. Fullback/linebacker Zack Deitrick has led by example on both sides, rumbling for 499 yards and ten scores, and A.J. McGuire has also been effective.
Even after Alex Papson has come and gone, the ground game is still North Allegheny’s bread and butter too. N.A. boasts one of the most respected lines in the state, led by Division I prospect Pat Kugler, son of Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler.
A major key to this game will be whether the Tigers can once again win the war of attrition, which has been par for the course since taking home gold from both Pittsburgh and Hershey. Offensive line play has been crucial to their productivity, as North Allegheny leads Quad-A with 40.5 points per game–half a point more than USC.
One never knows who among Walker’s committee of running backs is going to wear the cape. Alex DiCiantis has led the pack to this point with 760 yards and 14 TD’s, though Vinnie Congedo and Nick Passodelis have combined for over 1,100 yards and 21 scores, including a game-winning plunge by Passodelis on fourth and inches against Gateway in the closing moments against Gateway at Fox Chapel last Friday.
In addition, first-year starting QB and Tulsa, Oklahoma transfer Mack Leftwich, who came to town after Todd Graham hired his dad to assist him at Pitt, adds another wrinkle to that ground attack. Leftwich has scrambled for 472 yards and seven touchdowns.
His arm, in the meantime, gives North Allegheny balance it didn’t always have last season. This team might actually be better than the PIAA championship squad, despite all the roster turnover, simply because it doesn’t have to lean on its running game. Leftwich ranks second in Class AAAA with 1,835 yards on 56% passing and 17 touchdowns against only six INT’s.
Leftwich’s top target, James Kleinhampl, is a factor on both sides. He leads the receiving corps with 669 yards and five TD’s, while also gathering 18 solo tackles as a defensive back and four defensive interceptions, which ties him for the team lead. Greg Garrity, son of the former Steeler wideout by the same name, has contributed 400 yards and four TD’s of his own.
But again, the chances are fairly good the nightcap will be won or lost up front. North Allegheny needs to bottle up whichever quarterback starts for Upper St. Clair, and Upper St. Clair needs to hold that line and make Leftwich beat the Panthers alone. Plus, if their 28-21 loss to North Allegheny in Week 4 is any indication, they need to protect the pigskin better.
Bottom line is, not only might this be the bloodiest game of the day, it might also be the closest.
Be sure to follow the “Mr. High School Sports” blog Saturday night for scoring updates and more on this and the other three WPIAL Football Championship games!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)