Play from deep in playbook helps Penn Hills get past Gateway

Friday, November 12, 2021 | 11:34 PM

With less than a minute remaining and facing third-and-goal, Penn Hills quarterback Julian Dugger was sent off the field for a play because of an equipment issue, so the Indians had to dial up something they hadn’t done all season.

They went to the wildcat with Amir Key.

“I just kept saying to myself, ‘I have to get this,’ “ Key said. “Our seniors went home crying here (at Gateway) last year.”

This time, Key made sure the Indians went home happy.

Key took a direct snap and ran to the left side and scored from 2 yards to propel No. 5 Penn Hills to a 23-20 win over No. 4 Gateway in a WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinal Friday night at Antimarino Stadium.

Gateway (7-4) had a chance to tie at the buzzer, but Cole Plakson’s 30-yard field goal attempt missed.

Penn Hills (8-3) advanced to play top-seeded Moon in the semifinals next Friday.

The win avenged a 41-13 loss for Penn Hills in Week 1 and a 14-0 loss to the Gators in the quarterfinals last year.

Key finished the night with 74 yards on 13 carries, but none were more significant than the final 2 yards.

“We have not repped that wildcat,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said. “We pulled that out of (butt). Without our quarterback, we decided to get the ball in the hands of our next best player (Key) and have him go find the hole.”

The Indians built a 17-0 lead in the first half on a pair of touchdown runs by Dugger.

Dugger finished with 128 yards rushing but missed significant time in the second half because of a cramping issue. He returned for the final drive and threw a 41-yard pass to Chase Barney that set up first-and-goal at the 2-yard line and, subsequently, the winning score.

Key joked that Dugger did everything right except have the appropriate amount of hydration.

“He had a cramp, but we’ll get that fixed,” Key said. “We’ll get him some more water, some pickle juice and maybe some bananas.”

Gateway got a spark late in the third quarter when Brad Birch connected with Patrick Body on a shallow crossing route, and Body broke free for a 78-yard touchdown.

Then in the fourth quarter, Birch found Inez Jordan for an 11-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 17-14.

Gateway forced another punt on Penn Hills’ next drive, and Birch orchestrated a 60-yard drive than ended with a 19- yard touchdown pass to Body. The extra point was blocked, but the Gators had its first lead at 20-17.

After Key’s touchdown, Gateway drove down to the Penn Hills 20 in under a minute, but Plakson’s kick went wide left.

“We got in too big of a hole to come back from, but I give all the credit to our guys for continuing to battle,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “It was a tough night in a lot of ways, but we kept battling and found a way to take the lead. I thought our defense could hold them off, because they had played such a great second half, but you have to credit them for finding a way to get into the end zone.

“At the end, we thought we had a chance to win it or tie it, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Birch, the WPIAL’s leading passer, finished with 307 yards after having only 35 at halftime. Body had 111 yards receiving.

Friday was another classic between two schools that are 5 miles apart.

“It was Gateway and Penn Hills, an old Quad East style game,” LeDonne said. “There’s a lot of emotions right now, but once this settles down, we’ll talk about one hell of a game. There were players on both sides laying everything on the line. Going off with cramps, throwing up and coming right back into the game for more.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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