Mars guts out win over stingy North Hills

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Saturday, October 5, 2019 | 12:14 AM


In its last two conference wins over Armstrong and Shaler, Mars racked up a total of 76 points.

In its last two conference losses to Peters Township and Gateway, North Hills gave up a total of 78 points.

Those numbers made it look like Mars would light up the scoreboard Friday night at Martorelli Stadium.

The Fightin’ Planets were able to come away with a victory, but not in the manner they might have expected.

They pulled off a 14-7 come-from-behind win in a defensive battle.

“Sometimes, you just have to gut it out,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “That’s what we did tonight.”

The Indians played a strong first half, getting the game’s first points late in the first quarter when senior quarterback Dylan Pawling scored on a 1-yard run. The touchdown capped off a 12-play, 71-yard drive on which North Hills converted several third downs and a fourth down on a Pawling run. Pawling also hit Tyler Tomasic for a 31-yard gain on the drive.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, on their next drive, the Indians went back to work in a big way.

Staring at its own 18-yard line, North Hills held the ball for 10 minutes, 32 seconds and drove deep inside Mars territory. Third downs were key again, as North Hills converted four times to keep the chains moving. But Pawling, who had a great first half making decisions running the football, made his only major mistake when his pass was intercepted in the end zone by Nick Spotti.

North Hills ran 31 plays and held the ball for 19:04 in the first half, limiting Mars to 55 yards on 15 snaps. More impressively, North Hills limited Teddy Ruffner, the second-leading rusher in the WPIAL, to 14 yards on six carries.

Asked if it was frustrating not having the ball much in the first half, Heinauer said he didn’t sense that from his team.

“I don’t think it was frustration,” he said. “They made some big plays and we made some mistakes on third down. We just needed to calm down, control the ball and play our game.”

As good teams do, Mars made some adjustments at halftime, and they showed immediately on its first drive of the third quarter. Taking over at its own 33-yard line, Mars drove 67 yards on 10 plays to tie the game. Ruffner ended the drive with a 1-yard plunge.

Mars took 4:56 off the clock after having the ball for just 4:54 in the first two quarters.

“We just had our kids defensively try to slow down,” Heinauer said. “We were over-pursuing in the first half and they took advantage of that.”

Heinauer also said he thought Pawling played a great first half.

“Their quarterback did a great job,” he said. “He read what our kids were doing. He was able to cut back and get yards, a lot of yards.”

Pawling ran for 41 of his team-leading 67 yards in the first half as the Indians put up 145 yards of total offense.

Ruffner also thought the Fightin’ Planets were over-pursuing a lot in the first half but was confident even while his team trailed by seven points.

“We didn’t want to change anything up too much’” he said. “We knew we just had to come out and play a little harder and play better defense. We came out and did that and stuck to what we do best.”

The Mars defense forced North Hills to punt three consecutive times in the second half. Mars had a 51-yard punt return by Drew Schlegel called back on an illegal block and also fumbled deep in Indians territory.

Mars got the ball back with 9:20 left in the fourth quarter and for the second time in the half, drove 10 plays for a score. After starting at his own 24-yard line, Ruffner ripped off a 32-yard run on the second play, his longest in the game, to put the ball in North Hills territory. With 3:57 left, he bulled into the end zone from 2 yards out and Mars had its first lead at 14-7.

“I wasn’t really frustrated,” Ruffner said. “Well, there were some times when we were a little frustrated, but overall, we kept level heads and pounded the ball down the field in the second half.”

After a touchback and a penalty, the Indians started their final drive at their own 10. North Hills drove into Mars territory, but a holding penalty and a sack forced a fourth-and-long situation. Pawling’s last ditch run attempt was stopped well short of a first down. Mars was able to run out the clock with a hard fought 5A Northern conference road win in its back pocket.

Ruffner, who gained 1,013 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in his last four games, finished the night with 127 yards on 27 carries to go along with his two scores.

Even though his rushing numbers weren’t as gaudy as they were in the past four contests, Ruffner was very happy with the win.

“It was a great team win,” he said. “To play in a great environment like this and coming from behind, it was amazing.”

Most everyone knows what Ruffner brings to the game offensively, but Heinauer was equally impressed with his middle linebacker’s play on the defensive side.

“Teddy is very physical,” Heinauer said. “He’s very quick and is a great linebacker. He’s a big part of our defense because he’s always around the ball and people tend to forget about that.”

Ruffner said he thought the entire team played great defensively in the second half.

“We stayed home a little bit more,” he said. “The linebackers, the secondary, the line, we were all able to make a lot of tackles. We really stepped up in the second half.”

The win was the third straight for Mars (5-2, 3-1), while the setback was the third consecutive loss for North Hills (4-3, 3-1) and their first in the Northern Conference.

The Fightin’ Planets, who now trail first-place Penn Hills by a game and a half, return home to play Fox Chapel next week. North Hills will look to right the ship with a road game next Friday against Armstrong.

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