McKeesport defense to be tested by Pine-Richland in WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals
McKeesport is 10-1 for a reason, and Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz thinks he knows why.
“They’re a great football team,” he said.
At this stage of the WPIAL playoffs, they all appear great.
The Class AAAA semifinals Friday night match top-seeded Pine-Richland (11-0) against fifth-seeded McKeesport at North Allegheny and second-seeded Penn-Trafford (11-0) against third-seeded Central Catholic (10-1) at Norwin.
Other than a 28-24 victory over North Allegheny in the second game of the regular season, Pine-Richland has had a fairly easy time of it, winning by an average of 35 points.
The Rams have scored 112 points in their first two playoff games against No. 16 Connellsville (63-3) and No. 8 Altoona (49-7).
“They have more big guys than Penn-Trafford,” McKeesport coach George Smith said, comparing Pine-Richland’s linemen to those of Penn-Trafford, the only team to beat Smith’s Tigers this season.
The coaches agree the game could be decided by what happens up front.
Said Kasperowicz: “Ultimately, it could come down to who wins the line of scrimmage, regardless of what offense we run or they run or which schemes you’re talking about.”
But McKeesport’s running attack from a flexbone formation concerns Kasperowicz, who had been having trouble in practices getting his players to replicate McKeesport’s speed.
“Coach Smith is one of the legends of the WPIAL,” Kasperowicz said. “He’s one of the best coaches to come out of Western Pennsylvania, and they run a unique offense.”
With a lot of the discussion centered around how to defend McKeesport, the Tigers defense has been getting more attention.
After McKeesport shut down No. 13 Plum, 20-5, last week in the quarterfinals, Mustangs coach Matt Morgan praised the Tigers defense.
“They’re fast,” he said. “I’m more impressed with that defense of theirs. That’s what’s really gotten them to where they are now.”
Smith smiled when asked about his team’s defense.
“Our kids are tough. They play hard-nosed defense,” he said.
For McKeesport’s defense to succeed, though, containing Pine-Richland quarterback Ben DiNucci is a priority. DiNucci and the Rams bring back memories of the 2003 season, when Pine-Richland and a guy named Neil Walker won a WPIAL title.
The Rams’ bid for a PIAA Class AAA crown ended in a 39-38, double-overtime loss to Manheim Central in the championship game.
DiNucci has passed for 3,023 yards and 33 touchdowns this season.
McKeesport’s lone loss came in the third game of the season, 28-0 to Penn-Trafford on Sept. 13 in a rare Saturday afternoon home game.
“That was a long time ago,” Smith said. “We just worry about each game as they come — one at a time.”
McKeesport quarterback TyWann Smith, the engineer of the Tigers’ flexbone offense, bounced back at practices this week from a bruised shoulder that kept him out of much of the victory over Plum. Junior Tymar Sutton played in Smith’s place for the final 2 1⁄2 quarters.
It’s unlikely to change McKeesport’s approach regardless of who’s under center. The Tigers have attempted just 29 passes all year for a total of 260 yards, with running back Khaleke Hudson, who has rushed for 1,616 yards and 24 touchdowns, passing for a team-high 137 yards and completing 3 of 6 attempts.
“It’s something you don’t see every day,” Kasperowicz said. “It’s different, which always puts a little fear in an opposing coach’s eyes.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].