HARMONY, P.A. (93-7 THE FAN) — After an uncharacteristically ugly win at Heinz Field, Friday was a return to the norm for three-time WPIAL champion North Allegheny (14-0), and another mercy rule-shortened day at the office for its quarterback.
The Tigers, the state’s top-ranked high school football team and No. 21 in America per MaxPreps, pounded District 10 champ Erie McDowell, 56-6, at Seneca Valley’s NexTier Stadium in the PIAA Class AAAA Quarterfinals behind 13-of-15 passing and 275 yards from senior Mack Leftwich.
Leftwich threw for five touchdowns, four in the second quarter alone, and also ran for a one-yard score in that period, as his aerial assault annihilated a 6-0 first-quarter deficit.
“We had a lot of mental errors, especially in the second half [last week]. Defensively, we knew, with their triple-option offense, we had to know our assignments, and I thought we did a really good job aside from that first drive,” said future Michigan lineman Pat Kugler, whose hand in pass protection helped N.A. score 21 points in a 3:51 span to take a comfortable lead.
North Allegheny, on the night, scored that many points off turnovers, including a late pick-six by Elijah Zeise, and not including a second TD toss from Leftwich to Gregg Garrity that followed a four-and-out by the Trojans (7-6).
A key to that defensive success was shutting down McDowell senior running back James Conner, one of Pennsylvania’s top-ranked defensive prospects, who committed to Pitt as a defensive end during the summer.
Entering Friday, Conner (6’2″, 233 lbs.) led his team with 1,645 rush yards and 25 total TD’s, and averaged well over ten per carry. He was limited by the Tigers to 34 yards on the ground on just nine attempts, though his lone reception, a 24-yarder, did lead to a Khyre Drayer touchdown run.
“We’ve put him in different spots. Our basis is an ‘I,’ so we spread it around, and we knew they were going to key on James. In that first drive, we used him as a decoy, and we moved the ball,” McDowell head coach Mark Soboleski said.
“They hit so hard, it seemed like they were keying on everybody,” Conner said. “They knew I was the leading rusher, so if they were keying on me, they did a good job of it.”
The Trojans immediately took eight minutes off the clock, punctuated by Drayer’s four-yard score, but Soboleski’s plan to shorten the game failed. Talented sophomore quarterback Jake Tarasovitch called his own number much of the night, and N.A. was constantly ready for him.
“We were going to stick with that. Once we got down, we put it back in the ‘I’ and tried to go, but it was too late,” Soboleski added.
“You’ve just got to be disciplined with your assignment. You can’t freelance. If you go against a pro [formation], sometimes you’ll see something where you can make a move, but against a triple-option, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, otherwise it can lead to a blown play,” Kugler explained.
Conner built up his credibility as a defensive player, but he chose to primarily play offense this season, hence his absence from the first-string defense this evening. In fact, as 93.7 The Fan insider and Panther Lair editor Chris Peak recently reported–and as Conner hinted–the door is still open for him to play running back in college.
Undaunted by Friday’s loss, he talked about improving upon his vision and running ability as a senior, and he seems particularly enthusiastic about joining the Panthers.
“We’ve got a couple real good commitments, and I talk to those guys all the time,” Conner said. “We think the Class of ’13 can be ‘it.’ Plus, my mom can come to the games, my coaches, my brothers…I like what they’re doing. I have a real good relationship with [offensive coordinator Joe] Rudolph, and Coach Chryst, and we talk on the phone all the time.
First impressions being what they are, he will enter college with a decent mix of agility and upper-body strength–perhaps in the versatile mold of a Todd Thomas, or a J.P. Holtz, to randomly borrow local examples.
But what does he think he can bring to the program?
“I want to bring a championship, and I think we can do that. I’d be playing running back behind commitments who are 6’5″, 315, so, I think running behind that can bring back the Pitt tradition, that kind of stuff,” he said.
“We talk like brothers. With those coaches around me, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The only WPIAL representative to taste defeat Friday was West Allegheny (12-2), which bowed to a different District 10 squad, Erie Cathedral Prep (13-0), by a final of 27-13 in a PIAA Class AAA Quarterfinal contest at Erie Veterans Stadium.
Michigan State commit Delton Williams ran for a touchdown and caught a pair in the second half, including the game-winner, offsetting a scoring run by Chayse Dillon in the second quarter that gave the Indians a lead and their only TD.
Meanwhile, Aliquippa (14-0) rolled to a perfunctory 51-15 win over Karns City (10-4) of District 9 in a PIAA Class AA Quarterfinal game at Central Valley’s Sarge Alberts Stadium. D-1 prospect Dravon Henry ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns on just five carries, as the Quips built a 31-0 first-quarter advantage.
Three-time state champion Clairton (14-0) collected its 61st win in a row in similarly lopsided fashion, despite possibly losing one of Conner’s future Pitt teammates, cornerback Titus Howard, for the rest of the season with a dislocated elbow.
The Bears hammered Berlin Brothersvalley (11-2) of District 5, with possible Panther Tyler Boyd leading the 53-0 victory. Boyd ran for 222 yards and five scores to give himself 114 career touchdowns, breaking current Pitt running back Rushel Shell’s WPIAL record of 109.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)