North Allegheny football in unfamiliar territory as underdog to Central Catholic
For North Allegheny's players, there's been an unfamiliar feeling among them on Friday nights this fall.
“We've been underdogs for a couple weeks now,” linebacker Reilly Sullivan said, “and that's something North Allegheny hasn't felt for a while now.”
It's a label they'd like to drop but one they'll carry for another week.
The three-time WPIAL champions visit Highmark Stadium on Friday night as underdogs to Quad North host Central Catholic, the No. 1 team in Class AAAA.
Unbeaten Central Catholic (6-0, 5-0) has outscored opponents 229-27. With a victory Friday, the Vikings would tighten their grip on a conference title that North Allegheny has owned since 2009.
For three seasons, NA dominated the Quad North. Central Catholic, which joined the conference just last year, wants that crown.
“We've been looking toward this game,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. “They've run this conference for a while — the whole league, actually. So, we know it's going to be a battle.”
No. 8 North Allegheny (4-2, 3-1) won this matchup last year 28-0. That led the Tigers to a third consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA title and their second state title in three seasons. But only three starters are holdovers from that title-winning team.
The decline hasn't been terribly steep, but they've already lost twice.
North Allegheny's 24-game winning streak at Newman Stadium ended last week with a 35-32 nonconference loss to Gateway. A 20-6 loss to Seneca Valley in Week 3 snapped its 31 consecutive wins against WPIAL opponents.
But extending the Quad North title streak remains their goal.
“If we were to pull the upset, then we've got a great chance to win the conference,” NA coach Art Walker said, “but you can't get caught up in all those things.”
This will be the third ranked opponent in three weeks for Central Catholic, which had little trouble with the first two.
The Vikings beat No. 10 Pine-Richland last week, 49-14, and No. 7 Seneca Valley a week earlier, 42-0. Florida State-bound quarterback J.J. Cosentino threw five touchdowns in the victories.
“They've had a great season so far, we can't deny that,” Sullivan said, “but we're preparing like they're any other team.”
Central Catholic will be without leading rusher Luigi Lista-Brinza, who has 918 yards and 10 touchdowns. The senior tailback injured an ankle two weeks ago and likely will miss several more weeks.
But don't expect much sympathy from North Allegheny. The Tigers have been playing without two leading rushers. NA junior Josh Bergman (ankle) was injured Week 3, and senior Seun Idowu (foot) has been sidelined since Week 5.
Six weeks into the regular season, injuries have become a factor.
“It's awful when you have a teammate get injured,” said Sullivan, who also has seen two fellow linebackers leave injured. “But that's why you've got to have guys right behind them ready to step in. We've had some guys really make an impact.”
Both teams have found backfield replacements.
Central Catholic turned to junior Riley Redman, who rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns in Friday's 49-14 victory over Pine-Richland. The Vikings also have senior fullback Devin Faloon and junior tailback Grant Foster, son of former Steelers rusher Barry Foster, so the drop-off isn't steep.
Redman has 459 yards and seven touchdowns on 35 carries.
“I think (Redman) is quicker in two steps than any back we've seen,” Walker said.
North Allegheny has used senior Isaac Weaver, who rushed for 112 yards on 23 carries and caught a 7-yard touchdown pass in last week's 35-32 loss to Gateway. Weaver had two touchdown runs a week earlier in a 58-3 victory over Butler.
NA quarterback Jeff Clemens rushed for a touchdown and threw two others against Gateway while playing with a hurt thumb. The injury shouldn't limit him against Central Catholic, Walker said.
Pitt recruit Elijah Zeise, the Tigers' leading receiver, had a 10-yard touchdown catch against Gateway. The senior has 26 catches for 530 yards and four touchdowns.
Shafer Swann leads Central Catholic with 221 yards on just seven catches but has a touchdown in each of the past two games.
North Allegheny won both meetings with Central Catholic since Walker switched schools in 2005. That includes a 17-7 victory in the 2010 WPIAL semifinals.
“The last three years we haven't been underdogs, we had an unreal run,” Walker said. “We're not the favorite this time, but were not approaching it like we're big underdogs, either.”