Run vs. Pass: Fast-paced, high-scoring offenses finding a home in Alle-Kiski Valley

Saturday, September 5, 2020 | 10:59 PM

When Shawn Liotta took over the Burrell football program two years ago, he brought a fast-paced and exciting passing offense with him.

The Bucs quickly adopted the motto “Play Fast” as they operated with a no-huddle, run-and-shoot offense that lights up the scoreboard and set a PIAA record for most points scored in a season (958) in 2014 when Liotta was the offensive coordinator at Clairton.

“We just have multiple adjusting routes in a run-and-shoot philosophy, and we go really, really fast,” Liotta said. “A lot of people say they are a spread and they go fast until they come see us play. We go really fast, and we are going to give you different formations and shifts and weird things that you have to prepare for.”

The type of offense Liotta runs has caught on with coaches in the A-K Valley over the past few years. Randy Walters, an assistant coach at Burrell the past two seasons, took over the Leechburg program in March and is planning on implementing a version of the Air Raid offense, as well.

Riverview’s first-year coach, Trevor George, also plans on using several different formations but will use an Air Raid-type approach at times, too.

“From what I’ve seen so far (at Riverview), we can be a true pro-style offense, a pro pistol offense or a five-wide Air Raid offense,” George said. “It’s very multiple and very simple at the same time, so we can go with an up-tempo or a change of tempo.”

It has caught on quickly throughout the A-K Valley, but some coaches still rely on the old-fashioned, ground-and-pound type of offense. Longtime high school football coach Muzzy Colosimo has leaned on his running game throughout his coaching career, no matter the personnel.

“I once ran my tailback 37 times — 27 times in a row — in a WPIAL final game,” the Valley coach said with a laugh. “I always tell everybody, ‘I may not be the brightest, but if something is working, you better stop it a couple times before I stop running it.’ ”

Then there are programs like Knoch that adopted the triple-option offense in 2017 under coach Frank Whalen. Second-year coach Brandon Mowry has continued utilizing it, as well. The former Knoch student and assistant coach said the offense appeals to him because there are so many outcomes on any given play.

“The biggest thing is it creates conflicts for the defense,” Mowry said. “Depending on what kind of play we’re running, it could be a double option or triple option, and the defender has to make a decision. What they do helps us to know what we do. We can’t be wrong is really what we’re looking at.”

Knoch’s offense centered around the run, but with as many options as it has on any given play, it also sucks the defense in and opens up opportunities in the passing game to complete a high percentage of passes. The Knights used it on several occasions last year to find big receivers like Scott Fraser and Jared Schrecengost in open space down the sideline for long touchdowns.

“When we do take the opportunity to pass because we are so predicated on the run, we’re hoping to surprise defenses, get guys downfield and capitalize on matchups in open space,” Mowry said. “When you see a college team like Georgia Tech or Navy, they complete a high percentage of their passes because the defenses are focused a lot on stopping their option runs. That’s the mentality you have to have. You have to run for first downs, but you’ve got to throw for touchdowns.”

While some coaches focus primarily on the run or the pass year in and year out, no matter the personnel, others will change their offense based on the talent on their roster.

Kiski Area coach Sam Albert, who has made stops at Highlands, Butler, Freeport and Valley during his long coaching career, always has been an advocate for running the ball. But he hasn’t been afraid to install passing offenses.

“We always take pride that our offense is all set on the people that we have coming back and what we have,” Albert said. “There’s no use running the spread offense if you don’t have spread kids, and I’ve seen guys do it. They’ll throw no matter what they have. But why? If you don’t have a quarterback that gets it out there, what’s the point?”

Two years ago, Albert leaned on quarterback Ryne Wallace, who threw for 1,851 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season, Albert didn’t have a quarterback throw for more than 300 yards and had two running backs combine for 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Rising senior Kenny Blake led the way in that effort, rushing for 980 yards in seven games after the Cavaliers had a better understanding of their personnel and how to operate efficiently.

Albert isn’t alone in his philosophy. In his first season at Burrell, Liotta didn’t have a natural quarterback. With Logan Phillips, who played wide receiver last season, under center, Liotta still ran his Air Raid, run-and-shoot style offense but tweaked it to fit Phillips’ skill set. Then, this past season, Liotta had his team attempt fewer than 10 passes and run the ball 35-plus times in two games because of what the defense showed them or what the weather was like that night.

“There’s still value in teams that want to line up and bang at you. That’s why it’s still part of our offense,” Liotta said. “Part of our offense is a goal-line package that’s totally different than what we do with our base offense because I want to make you have to defend it.”

Implementing an Air Raid offense, though, can instill excitement and energy into programs that may have lacked it. In Liotta’s first season at Burrell, he said he had one player show up to the first workout and rostered 31 players. By the end of that season, he was dressing 17 to 18 players a game. Two years later, the Bucs have 50 on the roster and 18 in the incoming freshman class.

Walters saw what the offense did for the Bucs during his two years at Burrell and knew he had to take it with him to Leechburg.

“It just gets a lot of people involved, and kids will come for that,” Walters said. “They’ll come out because their buddies were telling them how much fun they are having in the new offense. It spreads the excitement around, and that’s one of the many things I like about it.”

Each style of offense brings different types of benefits.

Liotta has used his offense at a small school like Burrell to build up the program and rejuvenate it with an energy it hasn’t had in quite some time. But at a school like Kiski Area, where numbers are normally high, Albert can adjust his offense to the personnel he has on the field.

Whether it’s an exciting style that helps build a program, an old-school ground-and-pound style that has been around forever, or a little bit of both, each coach has his own preference. But, no matter the style, coaches will do whatever it takes to put a mark in the win column.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at or via Twitter .

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