North Xtra: Pine-Richland's offense showing lots of balance

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Gaining yards was not so much the issue last season for the Pine-Richland High School football team.

After all, the Rams had a 1,200-yard passer, a 600-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher on the 2012 squad.

Scoring points, however, was sometimes the issue. Pine-Richland finished 4-5 last season and in four of its five losses it scored 10 or fewer points.

First-year head coach Eric Kasperowicz knows full well about the Rams' "red zone" struggles last season, he was the offensive coordinator.

"We had trouble in the red zone," Kasperowicz said. "We weren't putting up points. Our main focus as far as offense has been finishing and getting points in the red zone."

Kasperowicz takes over for Clair Altemus, who retired after last season, and Kasperowicz knows full well about offense.

He quarterbacked a WPIAL and PIAA championship team at North Hills in 1993. He was a four-year starter for the Indians and was named Pennsylvania State AAAA Player of the Year before going on to play at Pitt.

This year the Rams are not just simply piling up yards, they are punching it in and piling up points.

"We are kind of tweaking things a little bit," Kasperowicz said. "We are simplifying things and doing what we do well and that is equating to points."

Pine-Richland is 2-2 with wins at Fox Chapel Area and at home against Butler Area in Week 3, but lost a 29-28 heartbreaker this past Friday against neighboring rival North Allegheny. Pine-Richland had a chance to win, but Ben Engel's 40-yard field-goal attempt with just six seconds remaining came up short.

In both its wins Pine-Richland scored 49 points. In Week 2 the Rams fell, 43-25, to unbeaten Seneca Valley when they could not hold onto a fourth-quarter lead.

Seneca Valley (4-0, 3-0) is undefeated and shares the lead of the Class AAAA Northern Eight Conference with Central Catholic (4-0, 3-0).

"We have an experienced quarterback and that is a big part of it, too," Kasperowicz said. "When you get to the red zone, things tighten up. Those windows you are throwing into are smaller. The maturity of our quarterback and skill positions has been big."

Junior Ben DiNucci is a returning starter back at quarterback. He was 103 of 175 for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

In a 49-18 win against Fox Chapel in this season's opening week he completed 10 of 14 passes for 244 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown pass. Against Butler he was 13 of 18 for 183 yards with two touchdown passes.

He was valiant in defeat last Friday against powerful North Allegheny, completing 24 of 28 for 313 yards and two touchdowns.

For the season he has completed 58 of 80 passes (72.5 percent) for 892 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception.

"He is doing great," Kasperowicz said. "He has definitely improved over last year. He is a good decision-maker and he knows how to distribute the football appropriately and he is doing that. Ben still has a lot of work to do as far as certain aspects of his game but he is a student of the game. He watches a lot of film."

One of DiNucci's favorite targets has been junior wide receiver Mike Merhaut. Against Butler Merhaut caught seven passes for 110 yards. Mike Merhaut is the younger brother of Luke Merhaut, the seventh-leading receiver in the WPIAL last season. Luke Merhaut is playing at Clarion University this season. Junior D'ondre Gastion has emerged as another top target for DiNucci.

"Ben, Mike and D'ondre have developed a good rapport," Kasperowicz said.

It has hardly been a one-dimensional offensive attack by Pine-Richland. Connor Slomka rushed 30 times for 172 yards with five touchdowns against Fox Chapel and against Butler he piled up 238 yards rushing, including scoring runs of 73, 35 and 4 yards.

He also has piled up impressive numbers through four games, gaining 559 yards on 81 carries and scoring nine touchdowns.

Junior running back Brendan Burnham has also emerged as a change-of-pace back.

"It is pretty cliché but the more balanced you can be, the tougher it is for a defense to stop," Kasperowicz said. "If you can run and pass equally well, that poses the toughest test for a defense."

The Rams will try to return to the victory trail Friday when they travel to Vandergrift to play Kiski Area (2-2) in a non-conference game.

Despite the tough loss to North Allegheny, the Rams are right in the thick of the race for a WPIAL playoff berth. The top five teams in the conference are assured a spot in the postseason, plus there is one wild-card berth available among the three Class AAAA conferences.

"We felt that going in that [the conference race] was going to be pretty wide open," Kasperowicz said.



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