North Allegheny advances to PIAA Class AAAA final
ALTOONA — After losing to Central Dauphin on a field goal as time expired in this same round and on this same field a year ago, Art Walker was leaving nothing to chance.
The North Allegheny coach decided his Tigers were in fourth-down territory the moment they crossed midfield, despite the down-and-distance.
Walker put his faith in Mack Leftwich, who overcame a shaky start to pass for 217 yards and three touchdowns in leading North Allegheny to a 45-10 victory over West Lawn Wilson Saturday in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinal at Mansion Park Stadium.
The Tigers converted 9 of 14 (64 percent) on third down and all four fourth-down attempts, including two on the first-quarter scoring drive that gave them a lead they wouldn't surrender.
“The mindset was, we're going to take every down and chance we get — as long as it's smart,” Walker said. “We wanted to make sure we exhausted everything on every down. We're not going to doubt or second-guess now. We were going to do everything to win it.”
North Allegheny (15-0), which has won 44 of its past 46 games, returns to the PIAA final for the second time in three years. The Tigers will play District 1 champion Coatesville (13-2), a 42-35 winner over LaSalle, at 6 p.m. next Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.
“We learned our lesson last year,” Leftwich said of the 23-20 loss to eventual PIAA champion Central Dauphin. “We were not going to let it happen again.”
Wilson (13-2) stunned North Allegheny on the opening kickoff, as Jesse Poore returned it 85 yards for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead.
The momentum turned, however, when Walker elected not to go for it on a fourth-and-4 at the Wilson 40. Leftwich's pooch punt landed at the Wilson 4, and the Tigers forced a three-and-out. Gregg Garrity's 20-yard punt return, followed by his 10-yard catch, set up Alex DiCiantis' 3-yard run to tie the score at 7-7 at 7:03.
“We were like, ‘Let's go get it back,' ” Leftwich said. “Once we tied the game up, we felt we were in control.”
The North Allegheny defense held Wilson to 103 yards and eight first downs for the game, while the Tigers totaled 370 and 19.
The Tigers answered with a 12-play, 57-yard drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions. Leftwich ran for 7 yards on a fourth-and-4 at the 32 then hit Garrity for 18 on a fourth-and-8 at the 23 before scoring on a 5-yard run for a 14-7 lead.
“That confidence Coach Walker puts in us gives us even more confidence in ourselves,” said Leftwich, who misfired on 6 of his first 9 attempts but finished 17 of 28. “We've been there before. We've had to make big plays in big situations. That helps us stay calm.”
Leftwich connected with Brendan Coniker on a 9-yard touchdown pass for a 21-7 lead. The Tigers took advantage of a turnover on downs at midfield with 17 seconds remaining in the second quarter when a 10-yard pass to Garrity was coupled with a roughing-the-passer penalty to set up Ben Ziolkowski's 37-yard field goal with no time remaining for a 24-7 halftime lead.
Wilson switched quarterbacks for the fourth time this season, replacing ineffective starter Matt Timochenko with Poore taking direct snaps. That breathed life in its offense and cut it to 24-10 on Hunter Rubright's 28-yard field goal at 4:55 of the third quarter.
Leftwich connected with Coniker again, this time on a fourth-and-2 at the Wilson 28, and the receiver stretched for the first down. Five plays later, Leftwich found Coniker for a 3-yard touchdown and a 31-10 lead.
“Whenever we went for it on fourth down was a huge momentum-builder for us,” Coniker said. “We definitely weren't afraid of their defense.”
Leftwich threw his third touchdown pass on a fourth-and-7, this one a 15-yarder to Garrity. The Tigers added a Sean Idowu 13-yard run with 2:54 left to invoke the mercy rule.
“We got them into third- and fourth-and-longs,” Wilson coach Doug Dahms said. “Give them credit; Leftwich made the plays. He's a heck of a quarterback. Some of the throws he made. ... He's the difference.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.