Mohawk defeats Imani Christian to reach WPIAL semis for 1st time

Friday, November 10, 2023 | 11:59 PM

Forty-eight minutes of play came down to the final 12 seconds. But in reality, it came down to the previous 11 games of the season.

Fifth-seeded Mohawk was able to get a defensive stop in the final seconds against No. 4 Imani Christian on fourth down to secure a 17-12 victory in the WPIAL Class 2A quarterfinals Friday night at Moon High School.

It is the first trip to the district semifinals for in Mohawk (10-2) school history.

“Just another huge defensive stand,” Mohawk coach Tim McCutcheon said of the turnover on downs, the fourth forced by the Mohawk defense in the game. “At the end of the day, our defense had to stand tall, and they did.”

It’s a win McCutcheon credits to tough regular-season battles, going all the way back to a Week Zero nail-biting loss to Union.

“Getting through the MAC alone is a tall task,” said. “The one thing it does is prepare you for the playoffs. We knew we had our hands full coming in here tonight, but I couldn’t be happier for these guys.”

Imani Christian’s average starting field position was its own 25-yard line. But after an 11-yard punt with 1:14 remaining, the Saints had the ball at the Mohawk 40.

Imani Christian (8-3) got one first down, but the final pass went through the hands of a receiver on fourth-and-12 to end the game.

In contrast, Mohawk’s average starting field position was its own 42. The Warriors’ first two possessions began in Imani territory after three-and-outs with the Saints offense moving backwards, leading to a Josh Wilkins 45-yard field goal.

“They elected to receive the ball,“ McCutcheon said, “and we have a kicker who puts the ball in the end zone. We had a big stand and put the field position in our favor, and when you have a kicker with a leg like that, it’s nice.”

Imani Christian responded with a seven-play scoring drive capped by a 39-yard pass from Dayshaun Burnett to Markus Williams giving the Saints a 6-3 advantage that held until halftime.

The four-star recruit moved from linebacker to quarterback for the playoffs because of 1,000-yard passer Stephen Vandiver being ruled ineligible for the playoffs as a transfer player.

“He’s done a great job,” Imani coach LaRoi Johnson said of Burnett after the game. “He will continue to grow as a player and be bigger, stronger, and faster next year.”

Both teams had drives of at least 10 plays in the second quarter that led to no points. A botched snap halted chances at another Wilkins field goal for Mohawk, and an Imani 12-play drive stalled in the red zone after a sack and a pair of pressures from Mohawk’s Jackson Chapman.

“He’s a game-wrecker, period,” McCutcheon said of Chapman, who had two sacks. “There’s many games this year where he’s just really changed the outcome of the game and changed momentum. … When you’re worrying about covering as many good athletes as they have, you can only bring so much pressure. So when you have one guy who can single-handedly create that much damage, it helps.”

Mohawk’s passing game opened up in the third quarter. Jay Wrona threw his 34th touchdown pass of the season on a 34-yard strike to Dante Retort to give Mohawk the lead 10-6.

On the ensuing kickoff, David Davis received the ball with a knee on the ground at the 2-yard line, and a three-and-out again gave Mohawk the ball deep in Imani territory at the Saints’ 36.

Cue the trickery as Bobby Fadden took a backwards pass from Wrona and fired down the field to a wide-open Joey Nail for a 32-yard scoring strike and a 17-6 lead.

“We hadn’t run that trick play all year,” McCutcheon said. “We practice it every week. Fortunately we hadn’t had it on film. My offensive coordinator, Dick Robb, he does a great job up there. We’re not afraid to take chances, even in intense moments of the game. We have faith these guys will execute and make good decisions.”

But Imani would not go away quietly. The Saints got their stop on an interception in the end zone by Williams to keep it a two-possession game.

“I know he can make every play on the field,” Johnson said of his junior defensive back. “It’s only his second year playing football, so the sky’s the limit in potential.”

Said McCutcheon: “We had a 50-50 ball in the end zone, and they gave it to the defense. We saw it as 50-50, and we should have got (the touchdown). The refs made the call, and they called a great game all night. But that’s how quickly things can change.”

Imani went on a 10 play drive, got down inside the 5-yard line, but could not put the ball in the end zone. An illegal substitution penalty and chop block moved the ball backwards, followed by Chapman’s second sack of Burnett. The hit knocked the Imani quarterback out of the game.

After a long Mohawk drive, the Imani defense again held tough in the shadow of its own goal line, forcing a 43-yard field goal that came up just short with just more than three minutes to play. After the touchback, Davis took a wildcat snap 80 yards untouched to cut the lead to 17-12.

Davis finished with 130 yards on 10 carries.

“It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to use him as much in the season,” Johnson said. “I’m amazingly proud of him. He battled through an elbow injury, battled the whole entire season, to come back and give us everything he had.”

Mohawk went three-and-out, leading to the short field for Imani with 1:14 remaining, but the Warriors defense held firm.

An emotional Johnson stayed on the field nearly fifteen minutes after his team had gone to the locker room collecting his thoughts and had plenty to be proud of for his team.

“I’m proud of where our program has come. Just a couple of years ago, we went 0-10. We’re building it. It stinks that it didn’t go our way today, but we’ll be back, and we’re going to be here to stay.”

Wrona threw for 130 yards and a touchdown, but it was the ground game that was the unsung hero. Justin Boston ran 17 times for 63 yards, and fullback/tight end AJ Verdi tallied 116 total yards on four touches.

“I tried to gear them up all week that we were going to stick with the run, in hopes that, through time, we could start wearing them down. We also wanted to eat a little clock — obviously they’re very explosive, they don’t need a lot of time to do damage. We did want to eat clock, but we also wanted to see if (Imani) could hold up (for the full 48 minutes).”

It’s only the fifth postseason win in the 100-year history of Mohawk’s football program. The only other time Mohawk had a 10-win season was in 1948 (as Bessemer High School) when the team went 10-0.

But for coach McCutcheon, it’s still business as usual looking ahead to a semifinal game against top-seed and defending champion Steel Valley.

“(We will prepare) the same way as we do every week. We enjoy Friday night, we enjoy the weekend. They don’t need to worry about Steel Valley yet. They’re a good football team. It’s up for us coaches to prepare over the weekend. We do all of the homework over the weekend and let them enjoy it. Once Monday comes, we turn the page and we install and get ready to do it again.”

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