(Statistical Information Courtesy of Professor Briggs' archives, The Herald, Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Local coach interviews courtesy of PIC SportsLine)
WEEK ELEVEN FOOTBALL PREVIEWS
Reynolds and Wilmington carry the banner for Mercer County into this week's state semifinals. Reynolds aims to earn its first trip to the state championship round while Wilmington pursues its fifth trip to the finals. The respective District 10 champions in Class 1A and 2A will face their District 7 champion counterpart. Reynolds hosts Jeannette in Class 1A while Wilmington visits Beaver Falls in Class 2A. Both games will be played Friday night.
CLASS 2A PIAA SEMIFINAL
Wilmington at Beaver Falls, 7:00 p.m.
Two schools separated by approximately 30 miles on State Route 18 will meet Friday night at Geneva College's Reeves Field in the state semifinals. Wilmington (9-0) will make its fifth consecutive appearance in the state semifinals while District 7 champion Beaver Falls (10-0) makes its second all-time appearance in the state playoffs.
Wilmington pulled away from Chestnut Ridge for a 56-29 win in the state quarterfinals last Friday night. Beaver Falls jumped out to a 36-0 lead on Sto-Rox in last Saturday's District 7 Class 2A title game as the Tigers picked up a 43-30 victory at North Hills.
Powerful rushing attacks have played major parts in the respective teams' success this season. Wilmington averages 369 rushing yards per game while Beaver Falls averages 353 rushing yards.
The Greyhounds rolled up 647 rushing yards against Chestnut Ridge. Senior halfback Ethan Susen ran for 326 yards and six touchdowns while senior backfield partner Darren Miller added 256 yards and a touchdowns.
"Our offensive line played a superb game up front," Wilmington head coach Brandon Phillian said. "I thought those guys did an excellent job from a mental standpoint. I thought they were very physical."
Susen leads the Greyhounds with 1,216 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He averages 10.0 yards per carry and leads the county with 1,653 all-purpose yards. Susen has 18 total touchdowns. Miller has 922 rushing yards and a dozen touchdowns.
Like Wilmington, Beaver Falls features a productive senior tandem in the offensive backfield. Josh Hough (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) leads District 7 with 1,920 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. He is a Syracuse recruit. Fellow senior Shileak Livingston (5-10, 220) has added 1,001 rushing yards. It's the second straight season that each player has rushed for over 1,000 yards.
"They have two terrific running backs," Phillian said. "They're phenomenal. They are a true combination of power and speed. They can beat you with the speed and they can beat you with the power. The fact that there are two of them really makes it difficult to defend them."
Junior quarterback Jaren Brickner has thrown for 939 yards this season. Sophomore Trey Singleton leads the Tigers with 11 catches for 396 yards, an average of 36 yards per reception.
"They have athletes everywhere. It's not just the two running backs," Phillian said. "They're very skilled. They have a talented quarterback. He's very good. He's good with his legs and very accurate with his arm."
Wilmington senior quarterback Caelan Bender has only attempted 44 passes this season. But the two-year starter has maximized those opportunities, throwing for seven touchdowns among his 22 completions. Bender averages 11 yards per attempt and has compiled a 185.39 rating (NCAA formula). He has 454 passing yards, along with 408 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Susen leads Wilmington with 12 catches for 284 yards and four touchdowns. Senior split end Mason Reed has nine catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns.
Wilmington's powerful Wing-T offense will face a Beaver Falls defense that held Sto-Rox to minus-21 rushing yards in the first half of the District 7 title game. Beaver Falls held Laurel's Wing-T offense to 119 rushing yards in Week Two, as the Tigers earned a 29-14 home win. Former Wilmington assistant coach Brian Cooper is Laurel's head coach.
"To me, they're every bit as good on defense (as offense)," Phillian said. "They do a tremendous job. They are outstanding tacklers who rally to the football. They're really, really good on both sides.
"They have quite an arsenal of skill people. At the same time, they do an outstanding job up front. They're very physical on the offensive and defensive lines. It's a complete team. When you get to this point, it's exactly what you'd expect in an opponent.
Beaver Falls won its first two District 7 playoff games at home. The Tigers downed Western Beaver in the quarterfinals, 42-14. Beaver Falls then eliminated Apollo-Ridge in the semifinals, 50-27. Beaver Falls played in the Class 2A Midwestern Conference, along with Ellwood City, Freedom, Laurel, Mohawk, Neshannock, New Brighton and Riverside.
Beaver Falls went 8-2 last season as a Class 3A squad. The Tigers fell to Derry in the opening round of the 2019 District 7 playoffs in overtime, 28-27.
Wilmington hosted Farrell in this year's District 10 championship game, then played state tournament foes Karns City and Chestnut Ridge in New Wilmington. This will be Wilmington's first road game since an October 15 win at Sharpsville in the regular season finale.
"That may be the one and only silver lining of COVID-19," Phillian began, "the fact that we were able to host some playoff games was really special."
"It's an excellent venue at Geneva," Phillian continued. "It's first class down there. We're very excited. If we couldn't be at Greyhound Stadium, this is probably the next best thing."
Wilmington has only five turnovers this season and owns a plus-10 turnover margin. The Greyhounds average 9.2 yards per play and have converted 60 percent (35 of 58) of their third-down opportunities.
"One thing this time of year is that you want to be peaking at the right time and I'm confident that our football team is continuing to improve each and every week," Phillian said.
This is Wilmington's first trip to Beaver County since the 2018 state semifinals, when the Greyhounds rolled Steel Valley, 26-6, at Ambridge. Wilmington owns a 23-14 record in the state playoffs. Wilmington is 4-7 in the state semifinals. The Greyhounds fell to Avonworth in last year's state semifinals at Slippery Rock High School, 33-21. Avonworth traded places with Beaver Falls, moving up to Class 3A this season.
Beaver Falls is 2-0 all-time in PIAA play. The Tigers defeated Martinsburg Central in the 2016 Class 3A state semifinals, 14-7, then secured a 30-13 win over Middletown in the championship game.
The winner will play Southern Columbia or Bishop McDevitt (District 12) in the state championship game next weekend.
The game will be heard on Sports Radio 96.7.
CLASS 1A PIAA SEMIFINAL
Jeannette at Reynolds, 7:00 p.m.
District 10 champion Reynolds (9-0) aims for its first berth in a football state championship game Friday night when the Raiders host District 7 champion Jeannette (9-1). The game pits two of western Pennsylvania's top defenses as Reynolds allows only 8.9 points per game and Jeannette yields 12 points per game. Reynolds leads Mercer County in scoring defense while the Jayhawks own the No. 1 scoring defense among District 7's Class 1A contingent.
Turnovers helped both teams earn victories last week. Reynolds forced three Redbank Valley turnovers in a 19-14 state quarterfinal victory last Saturday in Brockway. Meanwhile, Jeannette forced six turnovers and also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in a 45-14 win over Clairton in the District 7 title game at North Hills.
The Reynolds defense has 27 takeaways this season, along with a plus-19 turnover margin. In the playoffs, the Raiders are plus-8 in turnover margin. Meanwhile, the Reynolds offense has controlled the football in the postseason. The Raiders held the ball for 32:01 in the District 10 finals at Eisenhower, then had 30:21 of possession against Redbank Valley.
"To have a chance this week, we're going to have to repeat that kind of protocol," Reynolds head coach Josh Mull said of winning the turnover and time of possession battles. "Jeannette's a great football team. They're super explosive and they have great team speed. They do a lot of things well. We're going to have to play keepaway."
Reynolds has the personnel to have extended drives, thanks to its powerful rushing attack. Senior halfback Cole Toy leads Mercer County with 1,238 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. Fellow senior halfback Drevyin Livingston has 631 rushing yards while sophomore halfback Jalen Wagner (379 yards) and senior fullback Aidan Mull (308 yards, six touchdowns) have also been key cogs in the rushing attack.
The Raiders average 310.3 rushing yards per game this season. Forty-three of the team's 51 touchdowns have come on the ground.
"Three yards and a cloud of dust. Old school Reynolds football," Josh Mull said of his team's plan for the week.
Jeannette defense closed the regular season with consecutive shutouts over Class 1A Eastern Conference foes Bishop Canevin (49-0) and Greensburg Central Catholic (55-0). The Jayhawks then thumped Avella, 62-14, in the District 7 quarterfinals. In the semifinals, the third-seeded Jayhawks rolled to a 40-13 win at No. 2 Rochester.
Offensively, freshman quarterback Brad Birch has thrown 29 touchdown passes this season, along with over 1,700 yards. He ran for 63 yards and a touchdown in the district title game win over Clairton. However, he suffered an injury early in the third quarter and his status for Friday night's game is unknown. Running back Roberto Smith, Jr. replaced Birch at quarterback.
Smith, Jr. or senior wide receiver James Sanders could replace Birch at quarterback. Sanders threw for 1,357 yards last season as Jeannette's starting quarterback.
"They're an excellently-coached football team," Mull said. "They do a lot of things right. They continued to put points up in the second half against Clairton without their starting quarterback."
Junior wide receiver Brett Birch (5-10, 170) has received a scholarship offer from Central Michigan. He caught three touchdown passes and also returned a punt for a touchdown at Rochester. He is the older brother of Brad Birch. Smith, Jr. ran for a touchdown, threw a touchdown pass and also kicked a field goal against Clairton.
"They can strike from anywhere and there are four, five, six kids who are lightning in a bottle," Mull said. "We definitely have our hands full. We're going to have to try and contain some really great athletes, no turning over the ball and maybe force a turnover or two."
Junior 290-pounder Justin Shank anchors Jeannette's offensive and defensive lines. Jeannette opened the season with a 34-28 loss to Clairton in Eastern Conference play. Imani Christian, Leechburg, Riverview and Springdale join Canevin, Clairton, Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette in the Eastern Conference.
Reynolds 7-17-1 all-time against District 7 foes. The Raiders' last win over a District 7 team came in the 1978 opener, a 28-0 win at New Castle Union. Reynolds fell to South Park, 28-2, in the 2005 Class AA state semifinals.
Jeannette is 3-0 in the state semifinals. In 2006 and 2007, the Jayhawks defeated Wilmington in the Class AA semifinals. Three years ago, Jeannette defeated Farrell in the penultimate round. Jeannette won state titles in 2007 and 2017. Jeannette is 3-1 against Mercer County area foes all-time. The lone loss came November 8, 1980, when Farrell defeated host Jeannette, 13-7, in the District 7 Class AA quarterfinals. That marked the first playoff win for legendary Farrell head coach Lou Falconi.
The winner will play Steelton-Highspire or Bishop Guilfoyle in next weekend's state championship game.
The game can be heard on 790 WPIC.