Upper St. Clair revamps offense mid-season, readies ‘wildcat’ for No. 1 Moon

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Thursday, October 14, 2021 | 2:45 PM


An old football adage says if you’re playing two quarterbacks, you actually have none.

“What if you’re using six?” Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko asks with a laugh.

So far, USC has found strength in numbers. Just before the start of conference play, the Panthers overhauled their offense, transforming from a pass-friendly spread into a run-heavy wildcat.

Since the switch, they’re 2-0.

“We decided we were going to do some things to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers and let them make plays with their feet,” said Junko, who made the move after starting 2-3. “Against Peters and West Allegheny, we put six different kids at quarterback, which is a big shift for me. … It’s something that keeps growing every week, because it’s a new world for us. We’re excited about where it might take us.”

The new-look offense will be tested Friday when Upper St. Clair (4-3, 2-0) visits No. 1-ranked Moon (7-0, 2-0) at 7 p.m. The teams are tied with Bethel Park for first place in the Allegheny Six.

The front seven of Moon’s defense has been among the best in the WPIAL this fall. Led by middle linebacker Dylan Sleva and defensive end Ben Bladel, the Tigers are the only undefeated team left in the WPIAL 5A.

“With what they’re doing, there are a lot of moving parts to prepare for,” Moon coach Ryan Linn said. “But I hang our hat on our front seven. If that’s what they want to attack and go after, I’m more than happy to let them go there.”

The Tigers allow 14.4 points per game, third-best in WPIAL 5A.

Joining Bladel (6-0, 235) on the defensive line are Trent Fraley (6-3, 290), Jake Baumgartner (5-11, 240) and Joe Cotton (5-10, 200). Fraley, the son of former NFL lineman Hank Fraley, is committed to Marshall. He and Baumgartner are two-way starters joined on the offensive line by Aidan Mazreku (6-0, 245), Jake Hoak (6-0, 250) and Anthony Dines (6-2, 255).

All of the starting linemen are seniors. Four of the five on the offensive line are returning starters.

The linebackers are Sleva (6-3, 255) with Ryan Hazen, Cole Newhouse and Josh Bladel rotating in at the other spots in the 4-3 scheme.

“Moon right now is the dominant force in 5A,” Junko said. “What’s made them the dominant force is their ability to control the line of scrimmage. That’s going to be our biggest challenge.”

Upper St. Clair is coming off wins over Peters Township, 31-3, and West Allegheny, 17-3, despite throwing only a handful of passes combined.

Running back Ethan Hiester scored two rushing touchdowns in both wins but he’s not the only ball carrier taking direct snaps. Running back Jamaal Brown and wide receivers Aidan Besselman and Mateo Cepullio also will take wildcat snaps. Junior quarterback Brady Erdos, a first-year starter, remains part of the offense as well.

“One of the things we’ve really talked a lot about is this being a team effort,” Junko said. “It really gets guys involved and gives guys a lot of buy-in to what we’re doing. I think there’s a lot of belief in our kids about what we’re doing. Sometimes the belief is more important than the Xs and Os.”

Moon is coming off a 29-26 victory over Peters Township that was interrupted by lightning and stretched over two days. Moon quarterback Tyler McGowan threw for two touchdowns in the win.

Ben Bladel scored twice last week, including a touchdown on a blocked punt. He blocked a Peters Township extra point too. The Tigers also blocked kicks against Montour and Fox Chapel.

“Ben kind of gets a lot of the attention in regards to that,” Linn said, “but it’s been the combination of everybody getting a push and allowing that to happen.”

Moon is chasing after a conference title for the second time in three seasons. The Tigers finished 6-1 in the conference in 2019 and shared the title. They went 2-3 last year and missed the playoffs, but a strong senior class had them excited for a rebound this fall.

“When you’re trying to build, you have to prove that you belong, prove that you deserve to be there,” Linn said. “Now that the kids have played well and we’ve done well, (the message is) believe in yourself. Play with confidence. You’re the team that everybody is coming after.”

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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