North Allegheny beat 28-21 for the WPIAL Class AAAA championship—. However, the story behind the games were very different.
When two evenly matched teams such as USC and NA step on the field, the game most often will be decided by a big play or a big turnover. Saturday night's game may have been decided by a bad call. A blown call by one referee late in the second quarter gave North Allegheny a gifted touchdown that tied the score at 14. The score was tied again at 21 after regulation. North Allegheny won 28-21 after the first overtime.
With USC leading 14-7 late in the waning moments of the second quarter, NA quarterback Mack Leftwich lobbed one up in the left corner of the endzone to Brendan Coniker. The first referee called the player out of bounds and an incomplete pass. Unexplicably a second referee came on to the scene and overruled the other ref calling the play a touchdown.
The replay played many times on the big scoreboard. Maybe it shouldn't have. Coniker's foot landed so far out of bounds it made everybody, including the other referees, wonder why anybody could rule it a touchdown.
"Ouch," one referee told me as the USC crowd reacted to the many replays.
There is no use of instant replay in these games.
However, sometimes you have to overcome adversity and USC had many chances to win the game despite that bad call.
In fact, they overcame adversity all season long. Losing Dakota Conwell could have been a crushing blow. Thanks to a fantastic effort by Pete Couglin last week and on Saturday night, the loss of Conwell was not the reason USC lost the championship game.
Conwell tried to give it a go Saturday night. He came out for a few plays in the first series, but was unable to perform without excruciating pain. He even tried to play at the start of the second half. It just wasn't meant to be. A sad way for his high school career to come to an end, but fitting that he gave it his best shot not just once, but twice in this game.
Like heavyweight boxers, both teams were feeling each other out early in the game. North Allegheny punted their first three possessions and Upper St. Clair punted their first two posessions. Things going on their third series.
They went 55 yards in eight plays scoring on an A.J. McGuire two-yard touchdown run two plays into the second quarter. Pete Coughlin had a nice 19-yard run that set up the touchdown and carried the ball three times for 35 yards on the drive. USC had the lead 7-0.
It only took two plays for North Allegheny to tie the game. Leftwich scooted up the middle, took a hit and seemingly was going to the ground but fell towards one of his own players in a way that regained his balance. It seemed the USC defense felt the play was over, but Leftwich kept running and Coughlin, the fastest runner on USC's defense, was unable to catch him before he went all the way for a 66-yard TD to tie the game at seven.
USC then went on a 12-play drive but came up empty on 4th and 15 from the NA 24-yard line when Coughlin was sacked. North Allegheny then took possession, but eventually punted.
On the very first play of the next drive, Coughlin hit A.J. McGuire in the flat and he found room down the left sideline for a 65-yard score. USC had a 14-7 lead with 2:39 to play in the second quarter.
North Allegheny didn't have much time but Leftwich was able to get the Tiger passing game going. After two 21-yard passes to Coniker and a 10-yard pass to James Kleinhampl, they found themselves at the USC 23-yard line with just over 30 seconds left.
Nobody wanted to see what happened next. Maybe the Tigers would still have scored a touchdown later in the drive, but we'll never know as one official somehow saw Coniker come down into the endzone in bounds with 27 seconds left.
Given this is the first round of the PIAA state playoffs as well, the officials are PIAA officials. When the replays clearly showed it was one of the worst calls in WPIAL champonship game history all the officials knew it. There was just nothing they could do about it. It wasn't intentional. They are only human.
The score was tied 14-all at the half. USC had plenty of time to right the wrong, and even though it's hard to do, you can't blame an entire game on one call.
Conwell came out for the first series in the second half, but clearly was unable to perform at his amazing abilities. After a series that saw USC punt deep in their territory, North Allegheny took advantage of good field position.
The Tigers went 35 yards in six plays culminating in a one-yard touchdown run by Vinnie Congedo. Just like the first time these two teams played, Congedo did not have a carry in the first half, but was a big part of the second half game plan. North Allegheny led 21-14.
Both teams traded punts until midway into the third quarter. USC overcame a roughing-the-kicker penalty that kept one Tiger drive alive, but eventually took the ball over North Allegheny 38-yard line when Carleton Gibson intercepted Leftwich. Only Conwell in the first game, and now Gibson in this game, intercepted Leftwich all season long.
Coughlin ran for 23 yards setting up USC with first and goal at the five yard line. Three subsequent plays only took the ball to the four-yard line. Coach Render called timeout before the fourth down play and drew up a beauty. Wide receiver Mike Wilcox came on an end around and took off for the right corner of the endzone. Taking a hit at the two-yard line, he leapt in the air looking like Superman and dove in touching the very tip of the football to the white endzone line for a dramatic touchdown that tied the game at 21 with 4:36 to play.
USC forced North Allegheny to punt and moved the ball on their own before time simply ran out and Coughlin threw an interception on a hail mary play to try to get into field goal position. The game was headed to overtime.
USC won the coin toss and strategically gave NA the first opportunity. Overtime rules call for both teams to get the ball at the 10-yard line.
On NA's first play, Leftwich kept it for 8 yards. Two plays later he took it in himself and North Allegheny led 28-21.
Now, It was USC's turn. Coach Render decided to go with a play much like the one Wilcox scored the tying touchdown. However, North Allegheny sniffed it out and stopped it for a seven-yard loss. USC never got close to the endzone. Coughlin was unable to elude pressure on 4th and goal from the 16 and was sacked before he could heave the ball into the endzone.
North Allegheny got the win 28-21 and advances to play State College in the next round of the PIAA playoffs.
"Total team effort, I'm just proud of everybody," said North Allegheny coach Art Walker. "I can't put into words the effort they showed."
He may as well been talking about the USC squad as well, because their effort was just as amazing. They probably deserved a better fate than what they got, but that is what makes playoff sports so special. The finality of it all makes for dramatic theatre and Saturday night was as dramatic as it gets.
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