5 things to watch in WPIAL Week 10: Run vs. pass option to decide Class 5A playoff openers
Thursday, November 2, 2023 | 7:00 AM
The run-pass option is a staple for offenses nowadays and this year’s WPIAL Class 5A bracket is one big RPO.
Among the eight playoff teams in 5A, some have a run-first offense while others have quarterback-driven attacks. The divide in styles is more obvious this week since they’re matched head-to-head in the first round Friday night.
Penn Hills has arguably the best quarterback in the entire WPIAL in senior Julian Dugger, a talented senior committed to Pitt. The Indians run their offense through the 6-foot-4 passer, who has thrown for 16 touchdowns.
But consider the Indians’ opponent on Friday night: Penn-Trafford’s offense is built around a couple of running backs with double-digit touchdown totals. Junior Tasso Whipple has nearly 1,300 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns while freshman Ben Grabowski has scored 10 times.
That run vs. pass dynamic is repeated in other Class 5A matchups as well.
Gateway has one of the WPIAL’s all-time leading passers in senior Brad Birch, a quarterback with more than 8,000 career yards. He ranks among the all-time passers in WPIAL history.
Yet, the Gators’ opponent on Friday is Moon, which largely puts the ball in the hands of running backs Josh Bladel and Nazir Brookins. They’ve combined for more than 250 carries, 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns (or 12 more TDs than the Tigers have thrown).
Pine-Richland’s best weapon is running back Ethan Pillar, who the Rams converted into a wildcat quarterback. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns, while the Rams have thrown for only seven.
The fourth quarterfinal matchup pairs Peters Township and Franklin Regional. Sophomore quarterback Nolan DiLucia has sparked Peters Township’s offense by throwing for more than 1,900 yards, or almost four times as many yards as any Indians’ rushers has.
However, Franklin Regional is harder to define. The Panthers have a 1,100-yard passer with 13 touchdowns (Chase Lemke) and a 1,100-yard rusher with 15 TDs (Kyle Dupill).
Going the extra mile
In fact, each already has.
Peel, a freshman, ranks third among all WPIAL passers with 2,434 yards. Stribling, a junior, ranks fifth with 2,076. Combined, they’ve thrown for more than two and a half miles.
They’ll try to increase those numbers Friday night when they share a field in the WPIAL playoffs. No. 9 seed Western Beaver (6-4) plays No. 8 Serra Catholic (4-5) in a Class 2A first-round game at Norwin.
With forecasts predicting dry weather, this could be a good night to throw the ball. Combined, they’re averaging more than 44 pass attempts per week, so this also could be a very long game.
Peel already has broken what’s believed to be the WPIAL single-season record for passing yards by a freshman. East Allegheny’s Johnny DiNapoli had the previous mark with 1,728 yards in 2019.
WPIAL history lesson
Sure, in reality, their matchup from 1971 probably won’t be on the minds of today’s players when the two schools meet Friday in the WPIAL playoffs for just the second time. But their only other postseason matchup came 52 years ago in the WPIAL Class 2A championship game at Pitt Stadium.
Kiski Area won, 16-8.
That was a groundbreaking year for WPIAL football, which had true playoffs for the first time. All undefeated teams were permitted to compete in the 1971 playoffs, which wasn’t the case in prior years.
Previously, the Gardner Points System was used to decide which undefeated teams would meet in the WPIAL championship matchup. That meant some undefeated teams never had a chance to win the title.
In 1971, Kiski Area, Thomas Jefferson and Penn Hills were the only Class 2A teams to go undefeated in WPIAL play. Kiski Area reached the finals by defeating Penn Hills, 9-6, in a semifinal that reportedly drew 9,000 fans to Latrobe’s Memorial Stadium.
PIAA rule sidelines QB
Imani Christian has some of the top talents in the WPIAL, but the Saints will be without one of their most important players for the playoffs.
Junior quarterback Steve Vandiver is ineligible for the postseason under PIAA rules because he transferred from Penn Hills last winter. Most transfers after the start of 10th grade are forced to sit out the playoffs for one year.
Vandiver has passed for more than 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“There has to be a better way,” Imani coach LaRoi Johnson said of the PIAA rule, “because taking kids off the field is just something I don’t believe in. You don’t know what opportunity you may be taking away from them.”
No. 4 Imani Christian (7-2) opens the Class 2A playoffs against No. 13 Waynesburg (7-3) at Graham Field in Wilkinsburg.
The Saints will use junior Dayshaun Burnett at quarterback, a position he played last year. Burnett is also a highly recruited linebacker with offers from Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan and others.
Imani got a late-season boost when sophomore David Davis returned from an elbow injury. Davis, also a major college recruit, has switched from running back to wide receiver. In Week 9, he caught two touchdowns passes and returned a punt for another score.
So, the cupboard isn’t bare.
Rest, not relaxation
Playoff qualifiers in Class 6A all receive a bye this week, but that didn’t mean the players and coaches take the week off. Instead, they’ll try to find the right balance between rest and reps.
“We were going to do everything we could to make the most of the extra time,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. “We wanted to get healthy and also get extra reps in. It’s a balance of getting things done but also not burning your guys out.”
Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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