Old school meets new school when Rochester, Jeannette collide

Thursday, November 5, 2020 | 3:33 PM

Two traditional Class A powers square off Friday in the WPIAL football semifinals, each using different philosophies on offense.

No. 2 Rochester (7-1) uses the old-school approach — smash-mouth football. Against Springdale, the Rams ran 69 plays and 68 were on the ground.

No. 3 Jeannette (7-1) uses the new-school approach, mixing the run and the pass. Freshman quarterback Brad Birch has thrown for 1,457 yards and 24 touchdown passes this season.

But on defense, the teams are similar: aggressive and physical. They each allow 12 points per game.

The survivor of the game will get a chance to win another WPIAL title. Jeannette is going after its 10th title and Rochester its ninth. The winner will face No. 5 Shenango or No. 1 Clairton at 11 a.m. Nov. 14 at North Hills’ Martorelli Stadium.

“We don’t subscribe to the Woody Hayes philosophy (that three things can happen when a team passes, and two of them are bad),” Rochester coach Gene Matsook said. “We take what defenses give us. The players have done a great job. If we have to throw, we’re capable of that, too.”

But Rochester lost its starting quarterback, sophomore Parker Lyons, after the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart game Oct. 2. Matsook calls Lyons week-to-week. Lyons was standing in street clothes last week against Springdale.

J.D. Azulay, a 5-foot-9 junior, has taken over, and Matsook said he is doing a good job running the offense.

That offense lately has been leaning on a trio of running backs: junior Denny Robinson, senior Rashawn Reid and junior Sal Laure. Robinson has rushed for 843 yards, Reid 878 and Laure 518. Reid ran for 205 yards against Springdale.

“We have three good running backs,” Matsook said. “This was the youngest group I’ve coached here in my 34 years as coach in 2019. They came together and played well late in the season.

“We just wanted to see what type of step they’d take this season. They’ve taken a big step. We’re really still a year away.”

This will be the fourth time in five seasons the teams have met in the playoffs. Jeannette won 30-20 in the 2016 semifinals and 30-26 in the 2017 quarterfinals. Rochester blanked the Jayhawks, 27-0, in the 2018 semifinals.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “Two years ago, they embarrassed us. They had eight quarterback sacks. They handled us well and had a lot of yardage, and they controlled the line. Hopefully it will be different this year.”

Hall knows if his team wants to advance, it must slow Rochester’s running game and protect Birch.

Matsook said Birch is impressive for a freshman.

“They throw the ball pretty well, and the quarterback shows a lot of poise,” Matsook said. “They’re well-coached, and the key is we have to play good defense.

“When we do that, we can beat anyone. We’ve been playing well the past two games, and we’ve been able to neutralize opponents’ top players.”

Rochester defeated Springdale, 34-17, in the opening round of the playoffs, and Jeannette routed an outmanned Avella squad 62-14.

In the regular season, Jeannette rallied from a 21-0 deficit against Springdale for a 36-28 victory.

“I feel the game will be won on the line of scrimmage,” Hall said. “We have some game-breakers, too, if our line plays the way they are capable of playing.”

Jeannette senior Roberto Smith Jr. has rushed for 558 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. Senior Toby Cline and junior Brett Birch have 29 catches each. Cline has 479 receiving yards and 10 scores, and Birch 392 and seven touchdowns.

Senior James Sanders has 24 catches for 378 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders and Smith also have played quarterback, which allows Jeannette to have three quarterbacks on the field at once.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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