Upper St. Clair High School football coach Jim Render values the balanced approach his No. 3 Panthers bring as they face No. 6 Erie McDowell in the quarterfinal round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Seneca Valley High School.
The Panthers expect to see McDowell's brand of balance. The Trojans improved to 8-2 with a 42-7 first-round victory against McKeesport. It was the first WPIAL playoff victory for McDowell, which became an official football-only member of the league in 2010 and placed second this year in the Northern Seven Conference at 4-2, two games behind conference winner and No. 1 Class AAAA seed North Allegheny.
Upper St. Clair scored all of its points in the first half en route to its 42-0 first-round win over No. 14 seed Connellsville.
"[McDowell runs] an option that looks a little like the one [former coach] George Smith ran at McKeesport," Render said. "You have to contend with a big fullback and a quarterback who likes to run. They had two guys who gained more than 100 yards against McKeesport."
Those two Trojans were Khyre Drayer, who rushed for 111 yards on 16 carries, and quarterback Jarrett Koper, who added 104 yards. Wingback Greg Garmon rushed for 77 yards.
"Anytime you have a quarterback who can run, it presents problems for a defense," said Render, who has coached five Upper St. Clair teams to WPIAL championships. He is 2-2 in PIAA Class AAAA championship games, capturing titles in 1989 and 2006 and placing second in 1992 and 1997.
"[Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Michael Vick doesn't sit in the pocket, and [Koper] doesn't either," the coach said. "It's just another dimension for us to prepare for. They definitely are not one-dimensional. They are a lot like North Allegheny in that they are big, well-coached and have a quarterback who can hurt you [passing] in addition to running."
Garmon, who is being recruited by Division I college programs, is McDowell's leading rusher with 920 yards on 113 rushes. Koper is next with 557 yards on 78 carries, and Drayer has 335 yards on 72 rushes.
Garmon also leads the Trojans' scoring with 13 touchdowns for 78 points. Place-kicker Zach Baker is next with 45 points on 36 points after touchdowns and three field goals.
McDowell has to contend with an Upper St. Clair team that has considerable balance of its own. Quarterback Dakota Conwell completed nine of 11 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers' victory against the Falcons.
For the season, Conwell has completed 39 of 72 attempts for 791 yards and eight touchdowns. He has thrown just two interceptions. He's been just as effective carrying the ball with 894 yards on 102 rushes for an average of 8.8 yards per carry. He's Upper St. Clair's leading scorer with 102 points on 17 touchdowns.
Upper St. Clair running back Zack Dietrick is next with 396 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Four players rushed for Panthers' touchdowns last Friday against Connellsville.
"We're executing the way we wanted to," Render said. "We have a lot of offense. We have some guys who can catch and run and a guy who can throw. We mostly ran against Mt. Lebanon, but we wanted to open things up a little against Connellsville, and we were able to do that."
An Upper St. Clair win would match the Panthers against the winner of Friday's second-round game between No. 2 seed Central Catholic and No. 7 Mt. Lebanon. The Panthers rolled to a 42-6 regular-season finale against the Blue Devils but did not face Central Catholic in the regular season.
"Our team has been performing well in the last several weeks," Render said. "Our kicking game and defense have done well, and our offense has put points on the board. We're not satisfied, but [the team] has done everything we've asked them to do."
• Thomas Jefferson will take on an inspired Knoch team in the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs Friday night.
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