Franklin Regional defense prepares for major challenge in Wheeler
The Franklin Regional football team finds itself in a familiar situation: a WPIAL playoff game against one of the top running backs in the district.
Two seasons ago, the Panthers were tasked with stopping Hopewell's Rushel Shell, the WPIAL's all-time leading rusher, in a quarterfinal game at Fox Chapel. Friday night, the Franklin Regional defense will face off against West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler, the top rusher in the WPIAL this season, in a quarterfinal matchup at East Allegheny.
Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta hopes his team can learn from its 2011 predecessor, which defeated Shell and Hopewell by a 24-21 score.
“We knew (Shell) would get his yards; we just wanted to keep him out of the end zone,” Botta said. “I'm going to approach this the same way ... we faced the top running back in the country, and we won the football game because we executed what we needed to do.”
The Panthers (9-1) faced other strong running backs this season, particularly early in the year. They held Mars' Josh Schultheis under 100 yards in Week 1 before struggling against Highlands' Elijah Jackson in Week 3.
Wheeler, however, presents a more difficult challenge. With 2,381 yards, Wheeler needs 360 to break Shell's WPIAL single-season rushing record of 2,740. Wheeler also has scored 33 touchdowns and rushed for 359 yards and six scores in West Mifflin's 47-42 victory over Moon last week.
“If we stop Wheeler, we win the game,” Franklin Regional linebacker Kevin Slezak said. “They have a couple good players, and it seems like their line's pretty good. But if we stop Wheeler, I think we win.”
Botta said the key to stopping Wheeler is preventing big plays. Wheeler scored on runs of 2, 59, 70, 69, 21 and 24 yards against Moon last week.
“I've watched so much film on them, and he'll run 1 yard, 3 yards, 4 yards, (then a) 6-yard loss trying to cut back and do his thing,” Botta said. “Then, bam — 70 yards.”
Franklin Regional struggled with tackling early in last week's 42-21 victory over Montour, allowing Tynen Greer and David Haseleu to run for first-quarter touchdowns to give the Spartans an early 14-7 lead.
After that, the defense stiffened as Franklin Regional scored the game's next four touchdowns.
“At halftime, we just changed a little bit up with what we were going to do, and we were able to stop them the rest of the way,” defensive lineman Nick Fazio said.
While Wheeler is the headliner for West Mifflin (9-1), Botta said quarterback Karlyn Garner (848 yards, eight touchdowns) could also make plays in the passing game.
The Panthers, meanwhile, will counter with an offense that piled up 338 rushing yards in the victory over Montour. West Mifflin allowed Moon's Cole Blake to rush for 304 yards and four touchdowns last week.
“There's a momentum building with the offense, and I want to see that continue to build,” Botta said.
Quarterback Charan Singh led the way against the Spartans, rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns, while running backs Paul Emanuele and Brett Zanotto also exceeded 70 yards and wide receiver Colin Jonov scored on a 55-yard run. Singh also passed for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
“He is a competitor,” Botta said of Singh. “When you have someone like that at your quarterback position who is so skilled and so fluid, (it's a boost).”
With both teams boasting strong rushing attacks, Botta said Friday's game could be decided by the battle at the line of scrimmage.
The last time West Mifflin and Franklin Regional met in the WPIAL playoffs was the 2005 WPIAL Class AAA semifinals, when Panthers kicker Glen Halperin booted a 28-yard field goal in the final minute to win the game, 24-21. Franklin Regional went on to win the WPIAL and PIAA championships.
Botta has fond memories of that game.
“It was a dogfight,” Botta said. “(There were) crucial situations where we got the turnovers when we needed it. ... It was just a back-and-forth game until the field goal. It was one of the most exciting games we've ever played here.”