Knoch rolls past Highlands
Highlands had its nose pressed against the glass of the WPIAL playoffs, but Knoch abruptly pulled the blind on the Golden Rams, using its best passing performance of the season to post a dominating 41-7 win Friday night at Golden Rams Stadium.
Senior quarterback Dakota Bruggeman threw for a career-high 261 yards and three touchdowns, and senior running back Mike Cunningham caught six passes for 134 yards and scored three times as Class AAA No. 9 Knoch (7-2 6-2) rolled to victory in the Greater Allegheny Conference finale.
Bruggeman also rushed for a score and intercepted a pass, his fifth of the season, and Cunningham, who took a sharp hit to the ribs in the first half but returned, rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown and recovered a fumble.
Knoch will be the fourth-place team from the conference and open the playoffs on the road next week.
The loss eliminated Highlands (4-5, 3-5), which was within a tiebreaker of getting into the postseason potentially as a sixth-place wild card team. A loss to Hollidaysburg in Week 1 came back to bite the Rams, who played last night without starting running back Elijah Jackson. The sophomore missed the game with a concussion.
Highlands also lost starting quarterback Blake Leri to a first-quarter leg injury. The sophomore went down after trying to tackle Cunningham on the Knights' first touchdown.
With Highlands' secondary duct-taped together, Knoch took advantage.
Bruggeman didn't exactly dink-and-dunk the Rams, but he put the ball in the hands of playmakers, who did the heavy lifting.
A week after benefitting from its “Bencat” offense — a series of direct snaps to running back Ben Tackett — Knoch went to the air to post its fourth straight win over Highlands.
“Our plan was to throw short and run long,” Knoch coach Mike King said. “They bring a lot of pressure, and Dakota did a good job of picking his moments.”
Knoch had five plays go for 30 or more yards in the first half. Three of its touchdowns came on third down plays.
“They were bringing guys off the edge and I was able to get the ball off quick,” said Bruggeman, who completed 9 of 17 passes. “I didn't realize how big (junior Allan Cratsenberg) was for them. He was dragging guys all over the field.”
In the first half, Bruggeman completed eight passes for 228 yards and two catch-and-run scores to speedy running back Mike Cunningham and Adam Albert, the son of Highlands' coach Sam Albert.
Cunningham's score went for 55 yards; Albert's for 71.
“It was tough for us because we had our second- and third-string kids in there in the secondary,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said. “Still, though, Knoch's a great team. I love my kids and am very proud of their effort.”
Cunningham opened the scoring with a 40-yard touchdown run. Bruggeman rushed for a 12-yard score just before the break.
Cratsenberg took Leri's place at quarterback and completed his second pass attempt to Deion Fletcher for a 56-yard gain that set up the Golden Rams' only touchdown — a short run by Cratsenberg, who finished with 90 yards rushing on 17 carries.
“Allan Cratsenberg and Zack Mazur are men among boys for us,” Sam Albert said. “Our kids gave all they had.”
Knoch scored on its opening possession when Bruggeman and Cunningham hooked up again for a 31-yard play on 4th-and-14 to make it 34-7.
“All the credit goes to our linemen,” Cunningham said. “(Highlands) was coming in on blitzes so we hurried up and threw the ball. We got open quick.”
Knoch nose tackle Jonathan Whalen recovered a Highlands fumble in the end zone for Knoch's final points with 2:16 left.
Linebacker Joe Colonello also picked off a pass for Knoch.
“Our defense played well. We could have tackled a little better, but I am pleased,” King said.
Last year, Highlands beat Hampton on the final night of the regular season to clinch and extend its season. This time, the season came to a close in Week 9.
Knoch has beaten Highlands in 11 of the teams' past 13 meetings.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-226-2689.