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Franklin Regional advances to face top-seeded TJ

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
For the Murrysville Star
Patrick Kukalis fights through an Elizabeth Forward tackler during Franklin Regional's 44-7 win at home in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. Aaron Loughner | For The Murrysville Star
For the Murrysville Star
Nick Vento (11) congratulates Dane Brown (3) and the Panthers' offensive linemen after pushing forward for one of four rushing touchdowns by Brown in a 44-7 win at home over Elizabeth Forward in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. Aaron Loughner | For The Murrysville Star

Franklin Regional's final football game on its home turf this year gave its fans plenty of reasons to cheer.

Dane Brown had 148 yards and four touchdowns rushing, as the Panthers rolled into the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals with a 44-7 win over Elizabeth Forward in the first round last Friday.

The win puts No. 8 Franklin Regional (8-2) in a matchup with top-seeded Thomas Jefferson (10-0), a 63-19 winner over No. 16 Hollidaysburg, this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Elizabeth Forward High School.

The Panthers and Jaguars have plenty of history in the playoffs, including Franklin Regional's 2005 win over TJ in the WPIAL final at Heinz Field. Since that game, the teams have met two other times in the playoffs, in 2006 and 2009, with both games going in the Jaguars' favor.

Those previous meetings won't have any bearing on this year's quarterfinal, however, other than serving as a reminder of the traditions of success held by both programs.

“They're an excellent football team, and that's why they're seeded No. 1,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. “Like I said before, any of these eight teams left right now can win the whole thing. Now, it's about how you match up, and how you come to play.”

The quarterfinal will pit a Thomas Jefferson offense that has scored the most points in Class AAA against a Franklin Regional defense that has allowed the fewest, but Botta was quick to point out that no offense his team has faced this year comes with the balance and number of weapons that the Jaguars have.

“They have four tremendous wide receivers and a quarterback that has only thrown three interceptions all year,” Botta said. “Those guys make circus catches. They don't drop the football. And with all that, they still run the ball more than they throw it.”

With over 1,800 yards this season, TJ quarterback Joe Carroll is the player who makes the offense tick. His top target, Zach Schademan, had 20 touchdowns and 926 yards on just 44 catches during the regular season, while running back Jake Farrell is nearing the 1,000-yard mark for his season, as well.

“(The coaches) were there for about four hours (Sunday) to watch film and make sure we left no stone unturned,” Botta said. “We're going to work hard on game planning with our secondary, and we're going to put in some things to cause confusion and get after their quarterback.”

Franklin Regional is flying high after its big win Friday, in which senior running back Brown surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for his career on a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, his second score of the day. Brown now has 4,092 rushing yards, as he continues to extend his school record.

Elizabeth Forward got its lone touchdown on a 3-yard run by Rex Pearce, and Franklin Regional only led 14-7 after one quarter. But a 29-yard field goal by Brent Velasquez, Brown's third touchdown of the game and a 75-yard interception return by Charan Singh allowed the Panthers to blow the game open in the second quarter, and they went to the locker room with a 31-7 lead at the break.

Brown scored his fourth touchdown, and Singh caught a 5-yard touchdown from Nico Lodovico to put the mercy rule into effect in the third quarter and let FR coast into the quarterfinals.

“If this team is going to peak, this is the time to do it,” Botta said. “We hope to prepare well this week and continue down that path.”

Though the quarterfinal is a 1 vs. 8 matchup on paper, there are indicators that say Franklin Regional has every chance to move on to the semifinals for a second straight year.

The same Elizabeth Forward team that the Panthers just eliminated gave the Jaguars their closest game of the year, a 21-19 TJ win on Sept. 7. Both of the teams' other common opponents — Belle Vernon and Hollidaysburg — resulted in blowout wins for both Franklin Regional and Thomas Jefferson.

More importantly, the Panthers are healthier than they have been since early in the season, and coming off back-to-back mercy-rule wins, Franklin Regional is playing its best football.

“The atmosphere in the locker room is great right now,” Botta said. “Dane's running well and being a leader, along with Nico, Luke Fleck and our other senior guys.

“The mood is great, and the anticipation is high. They're confident they can beat anybody, and TJ is the next step in the road to where we want to end up.”

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or mgrubba@tribweb.com.

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