Belle Vernon and West Greene will both likely have to survive an aerial assault to earn passage into Heinz Field next Saturday.
Their foes both feature elaborate passing attacks that each will have to deal with in their WPIAL football semifinal games tonight.
The third-seeded Leopards (9-1) take on second-seeded and defending champion South Fayette (10-1) in a Class AAAA game at Peters Township High School.
The second-seeded Pioneers (10-1) meet third-seeded Sto-Rox (10-1) in a Class A game at Trinity Middle School.
South Fayette features the WPIAL’s leading passer in Naman Alemada, who has completed 185 of 274 throws (68 percent) for 2,761 yards and 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Belle Vernon, while not the passing team that the Lions are, also can be dangerous through the air with Jared Hartman running the show. The senior quarterback had some pretty impressive numbers himself, having connected on 103 of 136 passes (76 percent) for 1,530 yards and 27 touchdowns with five interceptions.
South Fayette defeated the Leopards in last year’s semifinals, 28-10, although Belle Vernon was without Hartman.
“I didn’t get to play in the game last year because of my knee,” Hartman said. “I’m just going to go out there and give it my all this week.”
The Leopards have been eyeing up a potential rematch since that loss, according to coach Matt Humbert.
“The whole year has been get back to the semifinals,” said Humbert, who has guided his team to three consecutive final four appearances. “That’s been the mission from day one.
“I’m proud of the kids because they were able to do that.”
Both teams cruised in their quarterfinal games with South Fayette shutting out West Mifflin, 52-0, and Belle Vernon hammering New Castle, 49-6.
“We’ve got to be dominant again with our line play,” Humbert said in assessing what it will take to get past the Lions. “We’ve got to be balanced. We’ve got to be able to pass, we’ve got be able to run.
“Defensively, we’ve got to be able to cover. They’re very talented in what they do offensively. You’ve got to really batten down the hatches on their offense.”
Leopards’ senior Hunter Ruokonen, who scored two offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdown against New Castle, is looking forward to the rematch.
“It’s exciting,” Ruokonen said. “We’re going to prep all week and work hard, do film study and stay as long as we need to stay to get ready for Friday.”
While the passing games get a lot of attention, both teams can run the ball effectively as well.
The Leopards’ ground game is led by Larry Callaway with 939 yards on 117 attempts. Two-way threat Devin Whitlock has 460 rushing yards on 50 carries and 20 receptions for 272 yards. Dane Anden has chipped in with 281 yards on 31 carries. Callaway, Whitlock and Anden each scored a TD against New Castle.
Ruokonen has caught 19 passes for 292 yards. Hartman’s favorite target is Nolan Labuda with 37 receptions for 465 yards.
Alemada has a pair of dangerous receivers with 56 catches apiece, Joe Audia (731 yards) and Charley Rossi (720 yards), that the Leopards must look out for. Ryan McGuire in another weapon with 30 receptions for 645 yards.
Andrew Franklin leads South Fayette’s running attack with 739 yards on 114 attempts, and Shay Aitken had 469 yards on 74 carries.
“It’s going to be an exciting game,” Humbert said.
The Pioneers must contend with Sto-Rox quarterback Eric Wilson, who is the WPIAL’s second-leading passer behind Alemada. Wilson had completed 178 of 292 throws for 2,736 yards and 25 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
West Greene’s offense, on the other hand, is a powerful ground machine featuring the WPIAL’s leading rusher in Benjamin Jackson with 2,923 yards on just 175 carries.
When it comes to passing, the Pioneers usually, well, pass on that option. The few times they have thrown they have been successful though. Nathan Orndorff, who took over at quarterback late in the season with Gavin Scott moving out to wide receiver, has completed 14 of 24 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Scott has five catches for 81 yards.
“I think we’re polar-opposite football teams,” Pioneers coach Brian Hanson said. “They’re a wide-open offense. They put the game in the hands of their quarterback. They run some screen spread stuff which makes a lot of sense because they’ve got a lot of quickness.
“They don’t have the biggest players per se, but they all play well in space. We’re the kind of opposite where we’re a fairly big team and base our game on power and controlling the ball. We’re very strong up front on both sides of the ball.”
Wilson’s favorite targets are Amahd Pack (44 receptions, 687 yards), Jaidon Berry (39 for 632) and Treynell Payton (32 for 562).
Much pressure will be put on West Greene’s defensive backs, who faced another potent passing attack last week when the Pioneers blanked Greensburg Central Catholic, 36-0.
“I think our secondary has improved quite a bit,” Hanson said. “It’s going to be an interesting match-up.”
The Vikings knocked off Jeannette last week, 15-6, while West Greene is coming off its first playoff victory since 1993.
“Obviously, it’s a good feeling for them,” Hanson said. “They were excited when they got that win over Greensburg. I think they handled it very well. They didn’t act like it was their Super Bowl. I think they were excited more so because they played well on offense and defense and special teams than ending the playoff drought.
“At the beginning of the year they made it known they had a goal of playing at Heinz Field, and they understand part of the process is you’ve got to beat good football teams at this point.”
Jackson is nearing several milestones.
The remarkable senior has scored 49 touchdowns this year, two short of the regular-season and postseason combined record of 51 held by Clairton’s Tyler Boyd’s. He needs 33 yards to break Armstrong’s Zane Dudek’s single-season rushing record and 77 to reach 3,000 for 2019. Jackson needs 51 yards to hit 7,000 for his career. He went over the century mark in career touchdowns with two in last week’s victory, putting his total at 101.
The Pioneers do have another key offensive threat, though, who could play a big roll if the West Greene is to get past Sto-Rox. Kolin Walker has run for 906 yards on 100 carries and has scored 11 touchdowns.
“He’s huge for us,” Hanson said of Walker. “I knew at the beginning of the season if we were going to be a championship-caliber team, Kolin Walker was going to play a big part in that. He makes Ben better. He makes the quarterback better. Because you can’t key on one guy. You’ve got to respect them both. We’re blessed to have him.”