Touchdown in final seconds lifts Penn Hills past North Hills in back-and-forth thriller

Saturday, October 9, 2021 | 12:01 AM

North Hills took its first lead of the game with less than a minute to go against Penn Hills. Apparently, they left too much time on the clock.

Penn Hills took advantage of a big kickoff return by Amir Rollins and quarterback Julian Dugger hit Brenden Hill for a 16-yard touchdown with just two seconds remaining. The last second score gave Penn Hills a 35-29 victory in Class 5A’s Northeast Conference.

Dugger’s legs gave Penn Hills (3-3, 1-1) a chance as he rushed for a game-high 155 yards and three scores. But it was his arm that won the game for the home team.

“When you have a quarterback that (Penn Hills) has and has those abilities to run around and make plays, it’s a problem,” North Hills coach Pat Carey said. “The bigger problem was they got the ball at the 50-yard line to start that drive. We’ve got to do a better job of pinning them down in there and making them go the long field.”

North Hills (4-3, 1-1) had just taken its first lead of the game prior to the kickoff return. Quarterback John Green connected with Chase Foskey for a 25-yard touchdown then Tanner Ilnicki for a 2-point conversion and a 29-28 lead.

“I told my guys when we were up seven and (North Hills) had the ball, if they score, they are going to go for two,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said. “That’s the right call, and they made it. We had a minute left, one timeout and were able to move the ball down the field. I couldn’t ask for better execution.”

Penn Hills standout wide receiver Jaden Dugger was limited to just one catch in the game. But he made his presence felt elsewhere. Dugger had a great deflection on a sure touchdown on defense, had a 49-yard punt return that set up another Penn Hills score and made his lone catch on a third-and-4 in the final seconds to keep the drive alive.

The gaps in Dugger’s offensive production were filled by others on this night. Raion Strader was one of the Penn Hills players to step up with three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.

“Teams are going to game plan now to take him away,” LeDonne said. “We challenged other dudes all week to step up, and some of them stepped up and made plays for us. Jaden accepts his role. He just wants to win football games.”

Strader’s touchdown came on the first possession of the game. It came at the end of an eight play, 64-yard drive. Julian Dugger found Strader for a 10-yard score and new kicker Owen Williams made it 7-0.

Scoring picked up in the second quarter. After North Hills’ Cooper Thompson intercepted a Julian Dugger pass, North Hills needed just three plays to even the score. North Hills ran a double-reverse pass on which Thompson threw to Ilnicki for a 28-yard touchdown to tie the game.

A fake punt and a 43-yard run by Rollins highlighted Penn Hills’ next possession. Dugger notched his first rushing touchdown on a 6-yard run, giving Penn Hills a 14-7 lead.

The advantage was short lived and John Green ended the half with a 1-yard run to tie it up again at 14.

Dugger put his team back in front in the third as the sophomore called his own number on an option left. He avoided one North Hills tackler and was off to the races for a 71-yard touchdown. Penn Hills was back on top 21-14.

A fumble by Amir Key gave North Hills life yet again. Green found Foskey wide open down the middle of the field for an 82-yard touchdown to tie the score a third time, 21-21.

However, Penn Hills responded again. Dugger’s 49-yard punt return set the Indians up deep inside North Hills territory. Four plays later, Julian Dugger got his third rushing touchdown of the game giving Penn Hills back the lead, 28-21, with just 2:29 remaining.

The seven-play, 64-yard drive that gave North Hills the lead followed.

“It was a gutsy performance, a lot of mental mistakes, low energy early on, but we just kept battling back and forth,” LeDonne said. “Hats off to North Hills. They came up with a great game plan.”

Both teams continue conference play next week as Penn Hills visits Fox Chapel and North Hills hosts Pine Richland.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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