Mt. Lebanon flashes versatility in win over Upper St. Clair

Friday, October 4, 2019 | 11:57 PM

Chalk up another one to coach Bob Palko’s trademark versatility.

Mt. Lebanon used seven ball carriers, two quarterbacks and a bruising offensive line to grab a 28-14 road win over rival Upper St. Clair on Friday night.

There was also a little flash in the special teams department.

After an interception set up a short Upper St. Clair touchdown late in the second half, Blue Devils running back Visawn Pennix grabbed a kickoff from going out of bounds, returning it to the Panthers’ 44-yard line. Two minutes later, Mt. Lebanon extended its lead to 21-7 and never looked back.

“Where we had our return was kind of good,” Palko said of Pennix’s decision to return the kick instead of taking the penalty. “I’d rather them be aggressive. He made that decision, and I trust my kids. I would’ve been happy had he let it go out of bounds, but you can’t serve two masters. It was a big return.”

“That’s a big play because it gave them an opportunity to punch one in right before half and keep momentum into halftime,” Panthers coach Mike Junko said. “We can’t allow that kind of field position right before the half.”

The Blue Devils, a Class 6A team, ran for 211 yards, with part-time quarterback Evan Jones going for 77 yards and two scores, including a 1-yard plunge to open the scoring.

Mt. Lebanon (5-2, 4-1) tacked on its second touchdown when its other quarterback, Joey Daniels, found Mason Ventrone all alone for a 31-yard strike.

On the following Blue Devils’ drive, however, Daniels was intercepted by Upper St. Clair safety Ethan Hiester, who returned the ball inside the 5-yard line. Panthers quarterback Ethan Dahlem cut the lead in half with a 2-yard sneak.

But then came Pennix’s kick return and the ensuing Blue Devils’ touchdown, a 4-yard pass from Jones to Ventrone, with 17 seconds left in the half.

What also followed was a continuation of Mt. Lebanon’s defensive game plan against the WPIAL’s second-leading passer in Dahlem and leading receiver in Upper St. Clair’s David Pantelis.

Pantelis entered the game with 928 receiving yards but was limited to three catches for 17 yards. He was also dropped for a 13-yard loss on a reverse. It forced Dahlem to run the ball frequently, including 18 first-half carries.

“We thought we’d rather let that happen than let (Pantelis) happen,” Palko said. “He’s special. That was the gig. We had a feeling that was what they were going to try to do.”

“Give credit to them. They had a good plan,” Junko added. “We also had a lot of penalties tonight that put us behind the sticks. That compounded our problems offensively a lot.”

Upper St. Clair (5-2, 3-1) was penalized 10 times for 75 yards. Dahlem passed for 80 yards.

The second half was dominated by Mt. Lebanon’s offensive line, which helped it to two long drives, one ending in a touchdown and the other in a missed field goal. In all, the two series drained over 16 minutes off of the clock, as Palko used both quarterbacks frequently to run 29 second-half plays to Upper St. Clair’s 12.

“That’s something that we wanted to do and needed to do,” Palko said. “That was the key in the second half. Whatever it takes to win. We don’t worry about yards. We’re just trying to make that clock tick when we’re ahead and come away with the win.”

The Blue Devils pushed their lead to 28-7 when Jones scampered into the end zone late. The Panthers then added a touchdown run with backup quarterback Heath Erdos.

Because it was a nonconference game, the win and the loss mean little in the grand scheme of things, with both squads returning to conference play next week.

“We look at our conference and there’s opportunity,” Junko said. “We’re right in the thick of things. We’ll watch film, get things corrected and get ready for Moon next week.”

“We’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us,” Palko said of next week’s home game against Pine-Richland, which was roughed up by Central Catholic last week before rolling over Canon McMillan on Friday night. “They’re the defending champs and they’re coming into Lebo a little bit upset about some things. They’re looking to get back on track and we’re going to be the guy in the way.”

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