QB Ethan Dahlem exits, but fast start leads Upper St. Clair past North Hills

Friday, November 1, 2019 | 10:52 PM

Like a scene from scary movie, Upper St. Clair quarterback Ethan Dahlem’s head and helmet were twisted around in the wrong direction as he crossed the goal line.

Dahlem, with a laugh, called it a horror-movie moment.

But for the most part, he was the one turning heads Friday night. Dahlem rushed for three first-half touchdowns and threw another as No. 9 Upper St. Clair used a fast start to defeat No. 8 North Hills, 34-16, in a WPIAL Class 5A first-round matchup at Martorelli Stadium.

The junior said afterward that he felt OK, but the Panthers played the entire second half without their do-it-all quarterback as a precaution. With Dahlem sidelined, backup quarterback Heath Erdos rush for a touchdown and USC’s defense stood strong in the red zone to protect a 20-point halftime lead.

Upper St. Clair (7-4) faces No. 1 Penn-Trafford (10-1) next week in the quarterfinals. A site and time will be announced later.

“If my helmet had stayed on, it would have been pretty bad,” Dahlem said. “But thankfully, he ripped it off, so I’m good for now.”

North Hills (6-5) was hosting its first playoff game since 2010, but Upper St. Clair stole the excitement and the lead in the first 51 seconds. Indians running back Tom McDonough fumbled on the first play, setting up USC for a short, 19-yard scoring drive and Dahlem’s first rushing touchdown for a 7-0 lead.

USC scored again about 2 minutes later with a one-play drive when Dahlem and Mateo Cepullio connected on a 53-yard touchdown pass.

“In high school football, momentum is so big,” North Hills coach Pat Carey said. “Things change when you get down 14-0. It’s hard for our offense to generate a lot of quick points.”

North Hills hasn’t won a playoff game since 2010.

“We felt like we had to come in and make a statement early,” USC coach Mike Junko said. “In a hostile environment like this field and the tradition here, you want to make sure that you sieze that momentum and hold onto it.”

Dahlem had 85 yards on 15 carries, and completed 6 of 9 pass attempts for 74 yards. Ethan Heister led Upper St. Clair with 122 rushing yards on 16 carries.

“Our big problem all year has been we’ve had to play from behind,” Junko said. “We talked a lot about getting a quick start. You get the fumble, you get the touchdown and you get the big pass. The energy and the momentum were on our side.”

Dahlem entered Friday ranked seventh in the WPIAL with 2,077 passing yards. He left the game after a one-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half. Facing fourth-and-goal, Dahlem pushed across the goal line as time expired and had his helmet twisted loose.

North Hills was penalized and a player was ejected. The teams combined for 17 penalties for 185 yards.

“It was a pretty rough play,” Junko said. “It was unfortunate because it’s not something you want to see on a football field. He’s going to be fine.”

Dahlem was slow to stand and then walked to the locker room. Erdos replaced Dahlem to start the second half.

Junko said he was removed for precautionary reasons. Dahlem said he’ll have further tests this weekend to rule out a concussion.

But before Dahlem left, Upper St. Clair already had built a 27-7 lead. Dahlem had touchdown runs of 1, 15 and 1 yards, along with his 53-yard pass to Cepullio.

“He makes the engine of our offense go,” Junko said. “When he’s in that mode, he’s tough to stop. He was certainly in that groove today. It seems like he keeps getting better with every outing.”

Trailing 14-0, North Hills’ Dylan Pawling cut the lead in half with a 1-yard touchdown run, the first of two scores for the Indians’ quarterback. Pawling added a 4-yarder in the third quarter.

North Hills executed a fake punt and recovered an onside kick in the second half, but couldn’t sustain its offense. USC’s defense stopped North Hills drives three times in the red zone, all ending with the Indians losing possession on downs.

“As a coach you hope that maybe you can get things rolling and get them behind the eight ball a little bit,” Carey said, “but it happened the other way tonight.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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