By Matt Popchock


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6:10 – Hello, good evening, and greetings from Hersheypark Stadium in Chocolatetown, U.S.A.! The PIAA football season may have ended months ago, but it wouldn’t be truly complete until we gave the best of the best one final, grand farewell…

That’s what brings us here to the 55th annual Big 33 Classic, which pits the top 33 (give or take) outgoing high school football players in Pennsylvania against the greatest the Buckeye State has to offer in the last on-the-field tune-up before their college careers begin.

Keep checking back as we give you periodic updates on tonight’s exhibition affair, and the young men that will be a part of it…

6:15 – First of all, like I said, this is, manifestly, an exhibition game. But why is it a big deal? Well…

Here’s a few of the gridiron greats who have played in it: Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Ricky Watters, Ed McCaffrey, Larry Johnson, Steve Slaton, Jim Kelly, Tony Dorsett…the list goes on.

Furthermore, all 46 (or, if you want to split hairs, all XLVI) Super Bowls have featured at least one Big 33 participant.

Get the picture?

6:25 – Team Pennsylvania, decked out in Nittany Lion-esque uniforms, warmed up a little while ago…

…and Team Ohio, dressed as OSU, has just completed warmups.

The latter is coached by Bill Albright of Midview High School in Grafton, OH, while the PA squad is led by Mike Brennan, who is on the staff at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, PA.

6:52 – Brennan, by the way, is a two-time PIAA champ and three-time district champ, having enjoyed the bulk of his high school coaching success at Mount Carmel before moving on to Blue Mountain in 2009. We’ll tell you more about Ohio’s team as the night progresses, but here’s a quick glance at the 11 locals playing this evening:

Rushel Shell, RB, Hopewell – Not much you can say about him that hasn’t been said or thought already. 2,312 rush yards as a senior, leaves as PIAA’s career rushing champ with 9,078 in all. One of the top running backs in the nation; also set an American high school record with 39 straight 100-yard games. Swore allegiance to Pitt, making him one of the most anticipated recruits that program has landed in many years.

Julian Durden, RB, Montour – Shell’s backup isn’t shabby either. He had a breakout game at Heinz Field to help deliver Montour’s first WPIAL championship since ’64 in a blowout of Knoch, and he ended 2011 with 2,104 on the ground and 27 total scores.

Shakim Alonzo, WR, Woodland Hills – A Cincinnati recruit known for his prowess on the basketball court, but his vertical ability makes him equally dangerous on FieldTurf. Ranked 28th best prospect, regardless of position, in PA by

Corey Jones, WR, Penn Hills – Pitt was sweet on him, but this uber-athlete committed to Toledo. 2,100 all-purpose yards and 16 all-purpose TD’s as a senior. Very fast, and could make quite a handy weapon to the Rockets on special teams.

Tyrique Jarrett, DL, Allderdice – The only City League player on PA’s roster, he helped anchor a surprising Dragons squad that reached the City League Championship game. Committed to Pitt before the end of the season.

Treyvon Hester, DL, Penn Hills – Committed to Toledo. Very talented two-way lineman who ranked 35th nationally at his position according to

Anthony Nixon, DB, Pgh. Central Catholic – He was an elite wide receiver as a senior, though his speed and stick-tuitiveness made him more attractive to college recruiters as a defender. Will be reunited with teammate (QB) Perry Hills at Maryland.

Mike Caprara, LB, Woodland Hills – Might be one of the more special players George Novak has ever coached, and that’s saying something. 103 tackles as a senior; held the school’s all-time record in that stat as only a junior. De-committed from OSU, and decided to go to Pitt instead after Jim Tressel dismissal.

Ian Park, OL, Upper St. Clair – Committed to Northwestern along with fellow “hog” Jack Schwaba. 6’4″, 295 lbs., an effective blocker for Arizona recruit Dakota Conwell en route to a conference title and WPIAL championship berth in ’11.

Terrell Williams, DL, McKeesport – Upheld the fine tradition of defensive lineman from that school to garner national attention. 58 tackles and 10 sacks as a senior, good leadership during a time of transition for the program. Committed to Youngstown State.

J.P. Holtz, TE, Shaler – Was Mr. Everything to the Titans, and one of the toughest, most complete players in WPIAL Class AAAA. De-committed from Penn State after the sex abuse scandal broke, and decided to go to Pitt after former PSU assistant Tom Bradley was not immediately hired elsewhere. Post-Gazette Fabulous 22 honoree.

6:56 – The National Anthem is complete, preceded by a moment of silence for Joe Paterno. Both teams have been introduced. Almost game time. Ohioans have traveled fairly well, and the local turnout is just as, if not more, impressive.

6:58 – A flyover from a PSU Medical Chopper. Okay, NOW it’s almost game time.

7:03 – PA will kick off left to right to begin the game. Bryant Myer of Manheim Central will do so. Ohio put it on them last year in a historic 50-14 victory. Generally I expect a much closer game this year, regardless of what the scoreboard actually says.

7:16 – One new rule this year: each team must pass on one-third of its plays. Personally I don’t see the need to legislate this. Coaches are going to want to give their quarterbacks their fair share of reps anyway. Besides, you don’t want players getting hurt right before camp, and running the ball enough will shorten the game. With Shell in the backfield, PA can do both.

7:21 – 5:26 left in the 1st, and PA leads 7-0 on a 61-yard catch-and-run from Skyler Mornhinweg to Kevin Gulyas. Rushel Shell set it up with an 18-yard catch-and-run up the near sideline. Impressive work up front by PA, and impressive running by Ohio State recruit Warren Ball before his team missed a 37-yard field goal.

7:32 – PA continues to lead Ohio 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. Once again, the defensive front for PA bent, but did not break, after Ohio converted a long 3rd down. PA will have one of those deep in its own territory at the start of the second period. Last year wasn’t a very good year for OL/DL around here, and it showed. That’s not at all the case this year. Caprara, Hester, and Jarrett each had a couple of shared tackles in the first, and got good pressure on the Ohio quarterbacks.

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7:42 – About five minutes gone by in the second quarter, same score. More great defense by the PA squad. Nyeem Wattman, a PSU recruit, with a nice backfield tackle shortly after Rutgers recruit Blake Rankin yielded an INT near midfield.

7:55 – Ohio has 2:40 and the long field to go to try and chip into a 14-0 deficit. Shakim Alonzo’s 13-yard grab from Rankin, set up by some nice work on the outside by Julian Durden, helped PA add on. Good job of improv by Rankin on that scoring drive. Much more poise from PA O-line.

8:05 – Halftime at Hersheypark Stadium with PA up 14-0. Both sides obviously looking strong defensively; the lone offensive highlights of the period were provided by Alonzo, who also made a nice leaping catch of a 35-yard Rankin pass near midfield prior to Rankin’s pick. Though, to his credit, MSU recruit Tyler O’Connor, had the hurry-up offense working for Ohio late in the quarter, until PA caught a break. A wide-open Malcolm Robinson slipped near midfield after hauling in a 1st-down pass, at which point PA’s secondary tightened. Nice work in man coverage by Nate Smith to force the final punt of the first half.

Some numbers to come…

8:17 – 1st half numbers of note:

Shell and Durden each ended with 21 net yards of offense.

Alonzo with two catches for 48 and a TD.

PA with 194 yards of offense, 180 of it in the air (well, maybe that new rule helped the home team after all).

Rankin 6/11 for 98 with a pick, a TD, and a sack.

Mornhinweg 3/4 for 62 with a TD.

Ohio with 92 yards of offense, 76 of it in the air.

O’Connor 8/16 for 76 yards.

Ball with 4 carries for 29 yards; 44 all-purpose.

By the way, Buffalo recruit Tyler Grassman (Gahanna Lincoln H.S.) was the one charged with the game’s lone field goal miss. Looks decent in his punting role so far.

8:26 – Back to action. Correction: PA kicked off to begin the half.

8:33 – Ohio takes timeout with seven minutes left in the third. Ball is showing great ability to get to the outside; he has 17 rush yards on the drive. Williams and Jarrett with a couple tackles on the drive, including a big one by Jarrett on Ball in the backfield that forced Ohio to use that timeout before 4th and long in PA territory.

8:44 – OSU recruit Najee Murray hooks up with O’Connor to get Ohio on the board. O’Connor was hit just a split second after throwing a perfect dart to Murray, which the latter turned into an easy 85-yard score. Grassman’s kick makes it 14-7 PA with 4 minutes left in the 3rd. Sorry, Skyler, but Tyler just one-upped you with that play…

8:55 – PA has re-upped its lead to 21-7, doing so moments before the end of the third quarter. An incredible catch along the far sideline by PSU pickup Eugene Lewis set up an against-the-grain TD pass from Rankin to an open J.P. Holtz, the Pitt recruit’s first catch of the game. Nice response by PA on that drive, which included a 20-yard sweep by Shell around left tackle. He appeared to be ailing from a tackle sustained early in the game, but has come back in and toughed it out despite the minor leg gimp. Ohio will start near midfield when the 4th quarter picks up.

By the way, I’m pretty sure Hester has been out there for every defensive play. He’s earned every minute, too.

9:10 – The teams swapped turnovers on consecutive plays, and a heroic 4th-down dive by O’Connor gave him just enough to keep the resulting Ohio drive alive and score from a yard out. 21-14 PA leads, 6:27 left. Moments later, Desmon Peoples was about to kneel in the end zone, but officials deemed that knee never touched. Peoples fumbled, and Jimmy Rousher appeared to recover. So, on a very strange–and debatable–chain of events, Ohio has tied it at 21 with six minutes left.

Just filled out my MVP ballot. Voted Rankin for PA, O’Connor for Ohio.

9:24 – PA has one last shot in regulation with 2 minutes left, but UC recruit Andre Jones picks off Rankin on PA’s first play. Ohio with the ball at its own 39.

9:29 – A three-and-out forced by the PA defense, and a personal foul on Grassman during the punt return that followed, gives PA another shot, this time with 1:17 left. Ball at the PA 42-yard line.

9:33 – Overtime. Rankin was picked off deep by Jones (again), trying to hit Gulyas for a game-winner. 21-21 is your score, and each team will get a possession at the other’s 25-yard line. Peoples has to be kicking himself for that earlier play. Let’s see if he gets a shot at redemption in OT…

9:45 – Big Ben’s presence on the Ohio sideline must’ve been a blessing, as Ohio steals it in OT, 24-21. After Quincy Jones got de-cleated on 3rd down, Grassman put a 39-yard field goal just inside the left upright. Then, Mornhinweg’s pass, a little too far for Shell, glanced off the latter’s hands, and was picked off by WVU recruit Nana Kyeremeh to end it.

Ohio’s O’Connor wins co-MVP. Despite three picks, Rankin, who did play well much of the night, shares MVP with O’Connor.

Roethlisberger gets a few lighthearted boos as he presents the trophy to Ohio, which has now won this game four years in a row. Again, just an all-star game, but certainly a heart-breaker for Pennsylvania.

Bright spots for PA: every Pitt recruited contributed. Hester and Caprara were beasts.

Bright spots for Ohio: a lot of team speed on display tonight. Ball looks like he has a bright future.

Check back later for more on this one.

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(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)