Gateway’s defense uses 4th-down stands to edge McKeesport in WPIAL semifinals

Saturday, November 16, 2019 | 12:05 AM

McKeesport’s Devari Robinson sprinted forward on fourth-and-4, colliding with Gateway linebacker Jay Johnson, who dragged him to the Offutt Field turf.

First down? Over on downs?

“I was unsure,” Johnson said, “but I knew I had him when I looked to the left and he was short of the sticks.”

It was the first of two dramatic fourth-down stops Gateway made deep in its own territory in the closing minutes of Friday night’s 14-7 victory over McKeesport in a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal in Greensburg.

The first stop came at the 7-minute mark and the second with 1 minute, 46 seconds left — an incompletion in the end zone — halting McKeesport drives at the 20- and 21-yard lines.

“They gave us a good fight,” Johnson said, “as they do every year.”

The win advances second-seeded Gateway (11-2) to the WPIAL finals for the second time in three years. The Gators will play No. 5 Peters Township (12-1) at 6 p.m. Nov. 23 at Norwin.

“There’s a lot of good football teams in 5A and to make it to the championship is super satisfying,” said Gateway coach Don Holl, whose team lost in the semifinals last season. “I think last year illustrates how hard it is even when you have a good team to keep winning and get there.’

Sixth-seeded McKeesport (9-4) was trying to reach the finals for the first time since 2016.

This was the third time in four years that Gateway and McKeesport met in the WPIAL semifinals. All three were decided by a touchdown or less.

“We got a couple real close ones but just couldn’t get it in the end zone the last couple times (down the field),” McKeesport coach Matt Miller said.

Gateway was an offensive machine in the regular season, averaging 36 points per game, but the Gators are winning here in the postseason with their stout defense.

A week ago, they defeated Bethel Park, 17-13.

Gateway forced two turnovers Friday. Derrick Davis recovered a fumble and Shane Thrift intercepted a pass.

“Our defense has had some really good results,” Holl said. “We’ve shut some people out. We’ve slowed some people down. … If you want to win championships, your defense had better be pretty good.”

Friday’s semifinal was a rematch from Week 9 when Gateway defeated Big East rival McKeesport, 36-7.

This time, Gateway trailed 7-0 at halftime before quarterback Bryson Venanzio threw two touchdowns in the third quarter. Sonny Comunale caught a 27-yarder and Tui Brown had an 11-yarder on the next possession.

The senior completed 9 of 14 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

“I let it fly,” Venanzio said, “and my guys went up and made great plays on the ball.”

McKeesport took a 7-0 lead on its first possession with a 17-play, 90-yard touchdown drive. It lasted nearly 10 minutes, stretched into the second quarter and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Deamontae Diggs.

Diggs led McKeesport with 114 yards on 26 carries and also added two catches for 46 yards.

Robinson, the team’s leading rusher this season, added 74 rushing yards on 19 carries. He injured his thumb in the first half but played through the pain, Miller said.

Robinson completed two throws to Diggs in the fourth, including a 15-yarder on fourth-and-15.

“He’s just a warrior,” Miller said. “He was really in a lot of pain the whole second half.”

McKeesport limited Gateway’s offense to six possessions. The first three produced a failed fourth-down conversion and two punts, but the Gators’ defense kept McKeesport within reach.

“We’re not giving up a lot of points,” Holl said. “It gives us a chance, if we can find something (on offense), that we can find a way to win.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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