Late score pushes USC past South Fayette, into playoffs for 21st straight season

Friday, October 23, 2020 | 11:35 PM

With his team trailing by three points with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter of a win-and-in game in Week 7, second-year Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko elected to go for it on a fourth-and-12 from the South Fayette 45-yard line.

Senior quarterback Ethan Dahlem scrambled away from pressure in the pocket, going right then left before seeing two receivers break for the end zone.

He tossed the ball downfield, and when he looked up, it was junior receiver Mateo Cepullio making a sideline grab at the 10-yard line to keep the drive alive and set up goal-to-go for the Panthers. USC eventually score, keying a 36-32 victory in the Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference game Friday night.

“We needed to not put our defense back on the field, and I’d love to take credit for the scheme. But the truth is Ethan took that play on his shoulders,” Junko said. “Just when you think he can’t one-up himself, he does, and he makes a play like that. It’s a microcosm of him as a kid. He never gives up.”

Dahlem said he saw the pressure coming after his receivers were covered downfield and just tried to keep the play alive before heaving it up for Cepullio.

“We called a play to try and hit a big play, but it broke down. I just tried to make something out of nothing,” he said. “I saw the routes covered, so I went right, then I moved out left and I saw two receivers going towards the end zone. As I got up, I was punching my fist in the air. It was a great feeling.”

On second-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Dahlem found Luke Banbury on an out-breaking pattern for a touchdown, which held up as the winning score that helped the Panthers clinch a playoff spot for the 21st straight season.

“We’ve run that play in practice and are really bad at running it in practice, but we liked it in film this week,” Junko said. “What do you know the kids executed it perfectly.”

Banbury also got the game-sealing sack of South Fayette quarterback Naman Alemada.

“I thought we settled down in the second half until the magic man as you could say,” South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. “There’s so many plays in the game, but (Dahlem) made the biggest play on that fourth-and-12.”

Upper St. Clair got the scoring started on its opening drive, as Abelardo Sabarzo connected on a 31-yard field goal.

The Panthers wound up scoring the first 16 points. Dahlem connected with Cepullio on a 49-yard pass for a score after which Matt Russell made it 10-0 late in the first quarter. Early in the second, Jaden Keating ran for a 76-yard touchdown. The point after was no good.

Alemada found Ryan McGuire for a 41-yard touchdown to put the Lions on the board after that. The extra point cut the Panther lead to 16-7, but it didn’t stay that way long.

With 4:48 to play in the second quarter, Dahlem ran in from 4 yards to push the score to what ended up being the halftime score: 23-7.

“We talked a lot about getting out and getting a quick start to force them to play chase,” Junko said. “We felt like we need to be balanced tonight and going forward, so we tried to do that early and did.”

South Fayette scored on its first drive of the second half with Alemada finding McGuire again, this time from 26 yards to make it 23-14.

The Panthers extended their lead but failed on a 2-point try after a David Pantelis touchdown reception from Dahlem of 21 yards.

Justin Caputo kicked a field goal from 25 after that to make it 29-17, then Alemada hit Joseph Audia for a 14-yard score to cut it to 29-24. The Lions took the lead on an 18-yard run by Shay Aitken and extended their first lead to 32-29 with a 2-point pass to Charley Rossi.

That’s when Upper St. Clair finished the job, scoring with 4:15 to play and then finishing it out with two stops on defense.

“Anytime we needed a stop we got it,” Junko said. “South Fayette has a great offense. They were going to break out at some point, but credit our defensive staff and the kids for staying with the scheme and getting the stops when we needed them.”

The Lions got 11 receptions for 173 yards from Rossi, and McGuire finished with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Alemada was 23 for 37 for 371 and three scores, and Aitken finished with 104 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

For the Panthers, Dahlem was 13 for 21 for 199 yards and three touchdowns and ran for the score on one of his 12 carries. Keating had 160 yards on 15 carries, and Cepullio led the way receiving with 108 yards on five grabs.

The Lions’ playoff hopes rest with the playoff committee, as South Fayette is alive for one of the two wild-card spots in Class 5A.

“I didn’t even think about that,” Junko said. “Part of my job when I took this position (for former longtime coach Jim Render) was to keep the tradition going. It’s our kids. It’s our coaches, our administrators, our parents and our community. It speaks to them more than me.”

Said Dahlem: “Our whole team played really well. Twenty-one straight is a big accomplishment.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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