A purple haze has fallen over the WPIAL football playoffs.
Plum turned a groggy, football-hungry community on its ear Friday night, stunning No. 4 seed Penn Hills, 17-6, in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
It had been nearly two decades since Plum moved across the playoff bracket, and with such a jolt. Last year, the Mustangs were playing an exhibition game in Week 10. This year, they were celebrating on a cold, drippy Halloween night.
And bad memories of the holiday have been erased.
“I remember two years ago around Halloween time,” Plum senior quarterback Wil Fuhrer said. “We wore our jerseys to school, and kids would come up to us and say, ‘Look, the football players are wearing their Halloween costumes.’ It was the worst. That drove us crazy. But it was a motivator.”
Dressed for success, Plum (6-4) continued to show the vast improvements its made to a once flat-lining program are working. This is no fluke. The Mustangs have bigger goals and staying power beyond a winning regular season.
“All week, our coaches harped on it being our time to shock everybody,” Fuhrer said. “We talked about the ’96 team. We knew this could be a defining game. The regular season was gone. This is the time to prove that you’re for real.”
Plum’s win at Penn Hills’ Yuhas-McGinley Stadium echoed the program’s most astonishing one, which also happened against neighboring Penn Hills. The Indians were the No. 1-ranked team in the country in 1996 when Plum denied them a shot at back-to-back WPIAL titles. The Mustangs won 14-12 in the quarterfinals.
That also was Plum’s last playoff victory.
Eighteen years later, the Mustangs are back in the postseason conversation, not shrinking away from the big-game pressure, but instead embracing it.
Plum broke a losing streak against Penn Hills, a year after snapping a 25-game overall losing streak that is now filed under “ancient history.”
“For this generation of players, this is far and away the biggest victory we have had,” said Plum coach Matt Morgan, a sophomore lineman on the ’96 team who experienced two playoff wins as a player. “For me, as a coach, it’s the biggest one.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Barlak summoned the team for an impromptu meeting during a pregame walkthrough Friday afternoon. He spotted something on film, a tendency — “Who gets the ball in certain formations,” Morgan said — and Plum pounced, taking away running lanes and frustrating the high-powered Indians.
An ornery defense supported an opportunistic offense.
Plum dispensed with the small talk and got right down to business.
“It was animated during warmups for sure,” Morgan said. “The biggest thing for us was to save momentum.”
And that started from the opening kickoff. Penn Hills star Billy Kisner took the kick and headed up the middle, nearly crossing midfield. But junior kicker Jake Chapla tackled Kisner.
“That play was huge; (Penn Hills) went three and out there,” Morgan said. “Who knows what happens if we don’t stop them there.”
The 4-3 defense delivered four sacks, an interception and recovered a fumble, which was converted into points.
“It was execution,” senior running back/linebacker Nate Turchick said. “They put it on the ground, and we got it.
“We played gap-sound defense. You couldn’t be a hero; you had to stay in your gap and wait for them to come to you. We had two guys outside taking care of the jet (sweep). Once they chose the gap, then we could gang-tackle.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Plum scored a pair of touchdowns in the second to take a 14-6 lead into the half. Chapla’s 33-yard field goal was it for the second-half scoring, but Plum didn’t need any more.
While emotion played a key role in the upset, a sound game plan made the most difference.
“It was all strategy,” Morgan said. “Our defensive staff did a fantastic job. They studied film and understood what we needed to do. We teed off on it. Emotionally, it’s not hard to get up for Penn Hills.
“It’s still very surreal what we did.”
Now the Mustangs, seeded 13th out of 16 teams, get a rematch with Quad East opponent McKeesport (9-1), which beat Plum, 20-3, in Week 7.
“I told them to enjoy this one. You worked your butt off and earned it,” Morgan said. “But after (Saturday), we’re on to the next one.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.