A-K Valley teams rely on ground game
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Burrell and Springdale don't keep secrets.
When their offenses line up, everyone in the stadium knows who is getting the football. The challenge for the defense is to stop it.
For Burrell, senior Cole Bush has the green light to do the heavy lifting, dragging and dropping defenders downfield.
Senior Sean Dugan is Springdale's tone-setting pace-car-turned-bulldozer, free to pick his spots and gobble up yardage.
Bush is the WPIAL's second-leading rusher; Dugan is fourth.
But the WPIAL playoffs care little about regular-season highlights or records. Teams retool their defenses to target specific teams and players, and stars often are grounded by uncharacteristic performances that are reflective of a defensive gameplan.
So, Burrell and Springdale, what does Plan B entail?
“We want to have a balanced attack with the pass and run,” said coach Kevin Horwatt, whose Bucs (8-1) will host Mt. Pleasant (7-2) Friday in the Class AA first round at Valley. “We threw the ball more last week, and we have some things ready. We'll have to see how things go. But Cole does what he does.”
Dwarfing many defenders, Bush has powered his way to 1,710 yards and 30 touchdowns — school records — while helping the Buccaneers to a share of the Class AA Allegheny Conference title. He has not gained fewer than 134 yards in a game.
He's accounted for 75 percent of the team's rushing yards and 58 percent of its points.
Mt. Pleasant allows 147 rushing yards per game. It gave up 295 to Washington standout Shai McKenzie in a 34-14 loss in Week 7, which gives Burrell confidence it can run.
But the Vikings will try to limit breakaway runs by Bush, who is a different type of back than McKenzie.
Mt. Pleasant knows Bush will get yards, but keeping him out of the end zone could be monumental.
“Bush is bigger, and Shai has more speed,” Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner said. “We hope the things we did wrong (against McKenzie) we can correct and some of the things we did do well will carry over.”
Springdale also has been a one-man wrecking crew behind Dugan, the Dynamos' all-time leading rusher and just the third rusher in Alle-Kiski history to top the 4,000-yard mark for his career.
Dugan has run for 1,637 yards and 20 TDs this season. That's 74 percent of the team's running game and 60 percent of its points.
Bush, who ran for 307 yards and six touchdowns against Kittanning and has scored 28 of the team's 34 rushing TDs, said the Bucs could spread out with him moving to slot receiver. That look may have Bucs fans cringing — not because of Bush's pass-catching abilities but because their star does his damage out of the backfield.
In a Week 9 win over Deer Lakes, Burrell quarterback James Liput completed 10 of 14 passes for 222 yards and three scores.
Burrell made a bet with Horwatt that if it won the conference, the team could shave its coach's head. The coach showed up with a shiny top for Monday's playoff meeting.
But what if Mt. Pleasant or another team down the playoff road takes the clippers to Bush's production?
“We'll be ready,” Horwatt said. “I don't want to give up too much information.”
Springdale (6-3) doesn't plan to change much. It's Dugan Time, and Brentwood (6-3) knows that entering Friday's Class-A first-round game at Fox Chapel.
“Our strength is running the football, and that's what we're going to do,” Springdale coach Dave Leasure said. “That's as plain and simple as I can put it. We have a good quarterback who makes good decisions, but we're not in a position to throw the ball 20 to 25 times to win.”
Dugan has four games with 200 or more yards.
Freeport and Knoch also have leaned heavily on senior leaders on offense.
Allegheny Conference co-champion Freeport has been powered by senior quarterback Brendan Lynch, who has rushed for 1,009 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Lynch is the splash-play guy who makes the offense go, even more so since the Yellowjackets (7-2), who host Beaver Falls (8-1) Friday, lost senior workhorse running back Damon Smith to a season-ending injury in Week 6.
Freeport, which grabbed the area's best playoff seed at No. 7 in Class AA, has thrived on a misdirection, shotgun offense made popular by Springdale.
“We've been doing it really well and running it more effectively,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said of the offense, which took shape around midseason. “We moved the ball against (No. 3 seed) Washington, too, which nobody said we could (do). I'm excited to come up against a really great opponent and see what we do.”
Freeport may have to rely on alternative ball-carriers such as Dustin Koedel and Mike Teorsky.
“We have plenty of other weapons,” Lynch said.
Knoch running back Ben Tackett has rushed for 1,085 yards and 19 touchdowns. The difference with the Knights, however, is that when Tackett has been slowed, backups have shined.
That may have to be the case for Class-AAA No. 10 seed Knoch (7-2) on Friday against a sound No. 7 West Mifflin (8-1) team.
Knoch's Mike Cunningham has been a big-play back on the ground and through the air, and tight end Luke Kroneberg has been a bail-out pass-catcher in key situations.
Senior quarterback Dakota Bruggeman has had plenty of help in running an offense that thrives on attaining first downs.
“I have said it all year,” Knoch coach Mike King said. “You can't be one-dimensional. Good teams have to be balanced on offense if they're going to have success.”
Said Bruggeman: “The athleticism on this team is unreal. We can move guys around. You don't know who's going to have a big game.”
Junior running back Demetrius Houser hasn't been the only weapon for Valley (6-3), but he's handled a decent portion of the carries. Houser is the A-K's third-leading rusher with 1,100 yards and 12 scores. He's accounted for 72 of the Vikings' 165 points.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-224-2696 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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