George Novak has a theory about which high school football teams win at this time of the year.
"It's the ones that figure the other ones out better," the veteran Woodland Hills coach said. "Everyone who is still playing is a good team. It's the teams that are able to find edges over their opponents who usually have the upper hand."
Woodland Hills (8-2) plays Gateway (9-1) in a WPIAL Class AAAA semifinal playoff game on Friday night at Norwin High School's Knight Stadium in North Huntingdon.
Novak has been watching tapes of Gateway in an attempt to find some tactical advantages. He is still looking.
"I've spent a lot of hours looking and they don't have any weaknesses," Novak said. "They're big up front. They're fast in the secondary. They fly to the ball defensively.
"Offensively, their guys can really play. They have a lot of Division I players. They are phenomenal. They have an outstanding team and they are well-deserving of their rankings."
Gateway's only slipup this season came in the sixth week of the season when it was beaten, 14-3, at home by the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked team, North Allegheny, which is also the top-seeded team in the WPIAL playoffs. In the Class AAAA bracket, Gateway is seeded No. 2.
Gateway senior quarterback Thomas Woodson, a University of Arizona recruit, is having a season for the ages. He has thrown for 2,210 yards and 21 touchdowns while being intercepted only once in 154 passing attempts.
Woodson is also surrounded by a number of explosive players.
Of the four players who have caught at least 14 passes, all are averaging at least 16.7 yards a reception. Montae Nicholson is the top receiver with 21 catches for 588 yards, an average of 28.0 yards a reception.
Running backs Andre Martin and Darin Franklin are averaging 8.5 yards and 7.9 yards a carry. Martin has 673 yards on 79 attempts and Franklin has gained 458 yards in 58 carries.
Woodland Hills has some offensive weapons of its own.
Senior quarterback Cody McClelland has changed the dynamics for the Wolverines, who have been traditionally a running team. He has passed for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns.
With the weather getting colder and wetter, however, Woodland Hills has started to rely more on its running game and freshman Miles Sanders. He had 120 yards in a 27-7 first-round win against North Hills Friday night, raising his season total to 557.
"He's really developed and he's getting better every week," Novak said. "It was his first playoff experience and I thought he handled it extremely well."
Although the two schools are traditional powers and are located just 7 miles apart, they have not met since the 2009 WPIAL Class AAAA championship game when Woodland Hills prevailed, 10-0, at Heinz Field.
Gateway isn't thinking about getting revenge for a game that was played three years ago, however. Instead, the Gators have their sights set on winning the WPIAL crown this year.
"The kids understand that if you have one bad night, it can send you home for the rest of the season," Gateway coach Terry Smith said. "We don't want to go home right now."