California pulls away from Monessen in second half

Friday, September 22, 2023 | 11:48 PM

Friday’s Tri-County South Conference matchup between Mon Valley rivals California and Monessen almost resembled a basketball game.

It was a game of runs.

After the Trojans scored the opening 23 points, the Greyhounds rebounded with 20 straight points.

But Cal had the final spree in the fourth quarter with 28 points, keyed by a pair of pick-6s by Jake Layhue, and earned a 51-20 triumph over Monessen at Trojan Stadium.

“Our defense made plays all night,” Layhue said. “We hung in there together, and I think we overcame a lot tonight. To beat our rival is a great feeling. We knew how big this win was, and now we are 2-0 in the conference.”

The Trojans (4-1, 2-0) have taken four of the last six meetings against their Mon Valley rival and avenged last year’s 28-20 loss to Monessen.

“Our defense bent but didn’t break tonight,” Cal coach Ed Woods said. “Our kids stuck with it, and our resolve was outstanding. Jake made some fantastic plays and just had a nose for the football as a safety. He has great ball skills, and, obviously, he is a great runner in space. He watches a lot of film during the week and is a true student of the game.”

Trailing by 17 points at halftime, the Greyhounds (1-4, 0-2) quickly got back into the game with an 85-yard kickoff return by Daevon Burke to start the second half. Monessen then trimmed the deficit to 23-20 later in the third quarter after a 20-yard scoring pass to Lorenzo Gardner from TyVaughn Kershaw.

“We had a couple of starters coming back, and our offense had no flow to start the game,” Monessen coach Wade Brown said. “Our starting quarterback then got injured, and we switched some things up. Our kids didn’t give up, but we just ran out of gas in the second half. Those two, pick-6s killed us.”

On the fourth play of the final quarter, the momentum turned in favor of the home team as Layhue picked off a deflected pass and returned to 43 yards for a score. On Monessen’s next possession, Layhue was playing center field from his safety spot and recorded an 82-yard pick-6.

“On both interceptions, I just read the quarterback’s eyes and made a play on the football,” Layhue said. “On the return, I just read my blocks, and the wall set up perfectly down the sidelines. It was a great team win, and we are hoping to carry this momentum for the rest of the season.”

The Trojans ended the scoring with a pair of touchdowns — a 52-yarder by Lee Qualk and a 6-yarder by Landon Abercrombie — to secure the conference win as the Greyhounds’ offense sputtered in the final 12 minutes.

Low snaps were disastrous for both offenses on their opening drives, as the teams totaled minus-31 yards. Monessen’s low snap came on a punt attempt, as the punter was tackled 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage at the 29-yard line.

Two plays later, Cal took a 7-0 lead after a 19-yard touchdown run by Spencer Petrucci and a successful extra point by Elijah Keene with 5 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first.

The Trojans grabbed another short field after a 12-yard punt by the Greyhounds, and, three plays later, Zack Geletei took a reverse handoff from Petrucci and scored from 28 yards.

Cal’s defense got into the scoring two plays into the second quarter. Malachi Peak recorded a sack of Dennis Hawkins in the end zone for a safety and gave the home team a 15-0 advantage.

On the ensuing possession for the Trojans, Layhue capped a four-play, 27-yard drive with a quarterback sneak from 2 yards. A Qualk 2-point run made it 23-0.

Monessen’s offense woke up on its next drive, as the visitors mounted an 11-play, 73-yard march that Rodney Johnson ended with a 5-yard scoring run. The big play on the drive was a 37-yard completion to Gardner from Hawkins.

After a Cal fumble, Monessen quickly got into the red zone with a 40-yard rush by Kershaw and a defensive pass interference penalty on fourth-and-13 from the 30-yard line.

The visitors had a couple of chances inside the 10-yard line, but Cal’s defense held Monessen scoreless.

“Monessen is a good team,” Woods said. “They have some game-breakers that can make you pay. We stress all week about tackling. We knew if we did not tackle well, we were going to lose this football game. The kids were upbeat throughout the game, and that defensive stand before halftime was huge.”

Qualk had 68 rushing yards for Cal, Layhue finished with 56 and Petrucci registered 42.

Kerhaw, who missed last week’s 28-0 loss to Bentworth with an injury, had 19 carries for 61 yards and threw for 113 yards on 5-of-14 passing. Gardner hauled in three receptions for 96 yards.

“The flood gates just opened up on us in that final quarter,” Brown said. “But we have to move on. It is now a five-week season, and we are going to challenge the kids. Coming into the season, we had high expectations. We have had a lot of things that derailed us, but we want to finish the season off strong.”

Both Mon Valley teams will head into Greene County next Friday for conference play: Cal travels to Mapletown, and Monessen ventures to West Greene.

“This wasn’t a revenge game,” Wood said. “But the loss last year just left a sour taste in our mouths. We needed this win, and we were really looking forward to this game.”

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