After a close call in the quarterfinals, Penn-Trafford took ownership of the semifinals with a performance that was as efficient as it was dominant.
And now it's back to the Mustard Bowl for the top-seeded Warriors.
Sophomore Caleb Lisbon scored three touchdowns, the running and passing games worked in tandem and the Warriors' defense held Upper St. Clair to two first downs well into the second half as Penn-Trafford rolled past No. 4 Upper St. Clair, 35-14, on a frigid Friday night at West Mifflin's Titan Stadium.
The Warrriors (11-1) will meet rival Gateway (11-1) in the WPIAL Class 5A championship next Saturday at Heinz Field.
Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane is a teacher at Gateway. The Warriors blanked the Gators, 28-0, earlier in the season.
Penn-Trafford will make its third trip to the finals in school history and second in three years and will try to bring home its first WPIAL title.
Upper St. Clair finished 8-4.
“We were balanced tonight. Our offensive line was the difference. They did a great job and picked up blitzes left and right,” Ruane said. “There were a couple home runs that we hit were picked-up blitzes. Our defense was tremendous again. We were close to shutting them out.”
To say that Penn-Trafford dominated the first half would be an understatement. On their opening drive, the Warriors went 84 yards in 15 plays in 7 minutes, 7 seconds to take a 7-0 lead.
Quarterback Cam Laffoon scored from the 1.
“We were focused tonight, but it starts up front,” Laffoon said.
A 68-yard drive followed with speedster Lisbon dashing up the middle for 24 yards and a score to make it 14-0.
“We came out with our ‘A' game and played hard,” Lisbon said. “Those big drives and stops on defense really made a big difference.”
After a bad punt by the Panthers, the Warriors drove to the 1 but were stopped on downs. But that was about the only negative in the opening half.
Cam Suman stepped in front of an off-thrown ball by USC quarterback Jack Hansberry and returned it 32 yards to keep the Warriors in command with a 21-0 lead at the half.
“We said on the sidelines we wanted to score on defense and kind of change the game a little bit,” Suman said. “That kind of sparked everything for our defense. It's a crazy feeling to know we're going back (to Heinz Field).”
The Warriors were 5 for 5 on third downs in the opening half.
Lisbon capped Penn-Trafford's opening drive of the second half with an 8-yard touchdown catch. Lisbon ran for 108 yards, and Laffoon finished 9 of 12 for 118 yards and ran for 62 yards.
John Gay IV added 60 yards rushing. Suman caught three passes for 53 yards.
“Hats off to them,” Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render said. “They're big. They're fast, and they're well-coached. It's very hard to find a weakness.”
There was one miscue for the Warriors. A bad snap bounced past punter Nick Tarabrella, and the Panthers recovered at the 1. Hansberry scored on the next play to cut the deficit to 28-7 with 5:14 left.
“We had the goal-line stand and started to move the ball,” Render said. “There were a few positives, but at the end of the day, they were a better football team.”
Lisbon raced 35 yards for a score to increase the advantage to 35-7. Hansberry connected to Colin McLinden for a 29-yard score with 2:42 to go.
“I hope people realize how hard these kids work,” Ruane said. “They sacrifice and work their butts off. They have an unmatchable work ethic. This group of seniors were sophomores the last time we made it down there. They want to go and finish it.”
Lineman Logan Hawkins, an Akron recruit, wore No. 44 for the Warriors and played halfback. The move was to fortify perimeter blocking.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BillBeckner.