Penn Hills knocks off 2-time defending state champion Archbishop Wood, earns trip to Hershey
Jon LeDonne looked over his shoulder at the scoreboard one final time as his players celebrated around him.
“I don’t know if I have time to enjoy it right now,” the Penn Hills coach said with a smile. “I keep checking the clock to make sure there are zeroes on it.”
Fourth-quarter seconds felt more like minutes for Penn Hills, which punted three times in the final 7 minutes and watched its defense make three consecutive stops Friday night to defeat two-time defending state champion Archbishop Wood, 20-13, in a PIAA Class 5A semifinal at Chambersburg.
Searching desperately for a tying touchdown, Wood’s final three possessions ended in an interception by Penn Hills’ Daequan Hardy and two failed fourth-down conversions — the last in Indians’ territory with 25 seconds left.
“The defense put the offense on their backs tonight and made the plays,” LeDonne said. “When the game comes down to it, I want my defense out there to win me the game.”
Hardy intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble, leading a dominant defensive effort that earned Penn Hills (15-0) its first trip to the state finals in 23 years.
District 12 champion Archbishop Wood (9-4) of the Philadelphia Catholic League had won two in a row and five PIAA titles in the past seven years. Wood defeated Gateway, 49-14, in the state championship last year, and Harrisburg, 37-10, a season earlier.
But Penn Hills wasn’t intimidated by history.
“We were 14-0, so we came in thinking we were the top dogs,” Hardy said. “We’re the top dogs and they had to beat us.”
Penn Hills will face District 3 champion Manheim Central at 7 p.m., Friday in Hershey. The Indians last reached the state finals in 1995 and defeated Lower Dauphin, 35-14, at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona.
“The emotions are high right now, because this is all we’ve talked about since we were about 7 years old,” Penn Hills running back Terry “Tank” Smith said. “To actually be here and going to the state championship, it’s a dream come true.”
Smith rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries as Penn Hills used its big-play potential to build a 20-6 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
Smith broke a 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and Hardy took a jet sweep 62 yards for a third-quarter score. In the fourth, wideouts Dante Cephas and Ric Martin combined for a 37-yard trick-play pass.
Penn Hills totaled only 223 yards from scrimmage, but they came in big chucks.
“It’s an explosive offense,” said Kyle Adkins, Archbishop Wood’s first-year coach. “With those types of offenses, you can’t let up big plays. We let up two for touchdowns.”
With 8:56 left and trailing 20-6, Archbishop Wood cut into Penn Hills’ lead with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jack Colyar to Cardel Pigford.
With the lead suddenly down to seven, Penn Hills tried to run out those final 9 minutes, but Wood’s defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs. The Indians punted with 6:52, 5:26 and 1:49 left in the fourth.
“It was dragging out and dragging out,” LeDonne said of the clock. “We wanted to run the ball and run some clock, but (Wood) did a great job of defending the run there.”
So, Penn Hills turned to its defense.
On its final three possessions, Archbishop Wood’s offense produced just 22 yards on 11 plays. The possessions ended at Penn Hills’ 34-, 40- and 44-yard lines.
“It seemed like the game moved so fast until the fourth quarter,” Smith said. “The nerves were a little high, but we knew our defense would come through.”
Wood finished with 178 yards from scrimmage. Colyar completed 11 of 23 pass attempts for 65 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown.
Wood running back Tom Santiago, who entered averaging 138 rushing yards, was held to 34 on 11 carries. As a team, Wood rushed for 133 yards on 34 carries – a 3.7-yard average.
“We had to stop the run for sure,” LeDonne said. “They’re a very physical team. … We knew we were going to play an in-the-box game.”
Wood played without one of its top two-way linemen, senior Connor Bishop, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound Army recruit who was injured. LeDonne called Bishop “a key component of their offense.”
Penn Hills played a near-disastrous first half Friday, yet led 8-6 at halftime. The Indians put the ball on the ground six times on three fumbles — all kept — and three botched punt snaps. Two snaps sail over punter Andy Plowden’s head and a third bounced at his feet.
As a result, Wood started first-half possessions at Penn Hills’ 28-, 39-, 38- and 31-yard lines.
Thanks to its defense, Penn Hills allowed only two field goals. Wood’s Bobby Hennessey made kicks from 25 and 39 yards and missed a 47-yard attempt.
“Any time you can keep seven (points) off the board and give them three, that’s a win,” LeDonne said, “especially with the situations we put ourselves in. … The defensive guys really had our backs tonight.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.