By Matt Popchock
No one can dispute that Art Walker Jr. is a truly special football coach. It’s incredibly hard to repeat as champions in Quad-A these days, and with its 28-21 overtime win over Upper St. Clair at Heinz Field, North Allegheny became the first WPIAL team in that classification to successfully defend its title since Walker helped Pittsburgh Central Catholic do the same in 2004.
However, one can dispute a couple of events leading to the Tigers’ dramatic victory. The great ones, like Walker, know exactly which buttons to push on the big stage, and sure enough, two calls made on Saturday night were critical to that victory…but neither of them were made by him.
The first call in question was Jim Render’s decision, after Upper St. Clair won the coin toss prior to OT, to play defense to begin the extra period. In a span of three plays, Mack Leftwich, who ran for a game-high 117 yards on 20 carries, scored on a two-yard QB keeper for the only points N.A. would need.
I can’t blame Render for having faith in that unit. USC was one of the least scored-upon squads in the WPIAL during the regular season, posting five shutouts in it, and the Panthers entered the championship affair allowing just 8.6 points per game. Defensively, that team had played its best football of the year at the right time, time and time again.
Plus, when you’re asking second-stringer Pete Coughlin to perform a mini-miracle tantamount to what he did the week before against Central Catholic, you want Coughlin, who played the majority of Saturday with bell cow Dakota Conwell again not healthy, to be as fresh as possible for the biggest series of the season. Under Coughlin, who ironically racked up 209 all-purpose yards after running for that many last Friday, USC’s offense had been on the field the majority of the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, why play with fire when you don’t have to risk getting burned? North Allegheny boasts one of the most efficient offenses in the district, which averages over 40 points per game, and one of the WPIAL’s leading quarterbacks in Leftwich. In the Tigers’ Week 4 victory over USC, they lit up the Panthers for 28 points as well, and going into overtime, N.A. had already amassed over 300 yards of offense, well above the Panthers’ norm. The Tigers had found answers for that defense, and they proved it again.
When I talked to Render after last week’s win, I was impressed by both his lighthearted demeanor, which, as nice as he has been to me, is usually replaced by a much more straight-laced one on game day, and by his humility. I respect any coach who is the first to admit when he may have swung and missed.
Prior to the Central Catholic game, USC won the coin toss. Render and the Panthers chose to defer, and the Vikings promptly drove right down the field for the first touchdown of the night. Sound familiar?
He said afterward that decision was probably a mistake. Personally, I suspect the decision made Saturday was too.
It isn’t every day you see the best football coach in WPIAL history make decisions in consecutive weeks that end up backfiring, let alone two that mirror each other, so North Allegheny can thank its lucky stars for that. The Tigers can also thank their lucky stars that the most controversial call of Championship Saturday went in their favor.
Upper St. Clair had taken a 14-7 lead late in the first half on a 65-yard catch-and-run by A.J. McGuire, but the Tigers were threatening. With 27 seconds till the gun, Leftwich went deep to Brendan Coniker on the near side of the end zone.
Coniker clearly appeared to come down out of bounds after leaping and pulling in the pass through free safety Steve Gannon’s coverage. The Post-Gazette’s Mike White corroborated me, as did the instant replay shown by ROOT Sports on television and the main scoreboard at Heinz Field.
It happened right under the nose of the nearest official. But–after hesitating–he ruled it a touchdown, and Jason Buchert’s extra point tied the game before halftime.
In high school football, like the college game, all a receiver needs in bounds to constitute a catch is one foot. The first of Coniker’s feet to touch the ground did so out of bounds, which means, regardless of whether the other foot touches in bounds, the pass is incomplete.
Unfortunately for Upper St. Clair, the zebras, for some reason, didn’t see it that way.
“I thought I was in, but then when I went up in the air, I felt like the DB pushed me out of bounds. But I got lucky there,” Coniker later told the Tribune-Review’s Chris Harlan.
Not so fast. A video of the play on the Post-Gazette website shows Gannon clearly had his back turned to the receiver as he followed the path of the ball (see shortly before the 2:30 mark). Unless Gannon is, in fact, Spider-Man, any contact appears to be incidental.
“Our kid didn’t even bump him,” Render responded. “We’d feel better if they just said, ‘We missed it.’”
Say what you will about the overtime coin toss, but in Render’s defense, I believe his team is indeed owed an apology for this call. To my knowledge, they haven’t received one.
Forty-eight hours later, I still don’t understand how or why that crew got it wrong. But they did get it wrong. It’s an open-and-shut case.
My philosophy on officiating, in any sport, is simple: get it right.
I’d love to talk to Chief Executive Tim O’Malley at some point just to get an idea of how serious the WPIAL is about using video replay in high school sports in the foreseeable future, but in any event, I hope they’re seriously considering the use of it at Heinz Field for next year’s football championships. I would emulate the NFL’s replay system if I were they, but I’ll leave that up to their imagination.
I’ve always had a hard time understanding the mindset of so-called “purists” who cling to the romantic notion of a “human element” in sports. In theory, if we left life’s problems to be resolved by “the human element,” my sneaker would still have a hole, my driver’s side door would still be smashed, and a chunk of the Convention Center would still be in shambles.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not singling out any particular WPIAL official. I simply believe that, if a craftsman has the proper tool at his disposal, he should use the proper tool, to its utmost potential, to get the job done. To have all these cameras at Heinz Field and not use any of them to correct an egregious error that directly affected the score of a game in which so much is at stake just doesn’t feel right.
So, once again, let’s get it right. People can criticize the use of video technology and the way it prolongs sporting events all they want, but if this controversial call doesn’t beautifully illustrate that instant replay, despite its tedium, serves a purpose, I don’t know what does.
Having said all this, USC’s deference on the overtime coin toss and the missed call on Coniker’s TD, did not, by themselves, win or lose the game for either team. Upper St. Clair had its chances before and after both of those pivotal decisions, and North Allegheny, to its credit, stifled the Panthers. At the end of the day the Tigers, on both sides of the ball, outplayed them.
Still, as the Panthers reflect upon the year that was, and the Tigers reflect upon State College, I can’t help but think the WPIAL has some reflecting to do as well.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)