WPIAL football isn't turning religious, but the word "mercy" is being used an awful lot in the league these days.
In Pennsylvania high school football, the "mercy rule" goes into effect and the game clock runs continuously when a team goes ahead by 35 points or more in the second half. In case you haven't noticed, WPIAL football is nowhere near as competitive as it used to be as the schedule every Friday is filled with lopsided scores.
District football -- WPIAL and City League -- has more blowouts these days than a junkyard of tires. The number of non-competitive contests has increased dramatically over the past few years and has reached staggering numbers this season.
Varsity Xtra: Battles of the unbeaten
The PG's Mike White and Terry Shields talk about the battles of the unbeaten as WPIAL football playoffs approach. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 10/21/2013)
The Post-Gazette researched scores of all WPIAL and City League games this season and used a 40-point margin to determine a "blowout." The number of blowouts already this season has increased by an alarming 79 percent compared to just 10 years ago, by 144 percent from 20 years ago and 313 percent from 50 years ago.
The blowout statistics are staggering:
* Go back 50 years to 1963 and there were only 23 games played that resulted in 40-point margins of victory the entire season in the WPIAL and City League. The 1953 season also had only 23 40-point games.
With still one week to go in this regular season, there have already been 95 games in the WPIAL and City League with 40-point margins.
* The 2003 season had 53 games of 40-point margins.
* The 1993 season had 39 games of 40-point margins.
"Certainly, we've noticed the scores," Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. "I don't see at as the demise of high school football, but I see it as something to observe."
Aliquippa has one of the richest football traditions in the state and the Quips are a good example of how blowouts have increased. Even when Aliquippa had great teams in the 1980s and 90s, it didn't win as easily as it does these days. Over the past two seasons, Aliquippa has invoked the mercy rule in 10 of 12 Class AA Midwestern Athletic Conference games.
Compare that to 1991, when Aliquippa won a PIAA title and had a future NFL player in Ty Law. But the Quips won only one game that year by more than 35 points. In 1988, the Quips had a loaded team, won a WPIAL title and had another future NFL player in Sean Gilbert. But that team won only three games by 35 points or more.
"The number of blowouts raises a concern," WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. "It's not good to see, but one of the positives is that on some occasions, the team at the wrong end of the score has not thrown blame at an opponent for running up the score."
In other words, these blowouts are just happening -- and they aren't just in the smaller classes, as some coaches believe. This season, the average score for WPIAL Class A games is 38.7 to 11.0. But the average score for Class AAAA is 34.9 to 10.9.
So the question is: Why do so many teams have trouble competing these days? Why are there so many blowouts? Are there simply more bad teams than years ago?
According to some coaches, the reasons for the increase in blowouts are everything from more passing these days, smaller roster sizes, smaller schools and a lack of continuity in coaches. They say it's not coaches running up scores.
"I think it's a huge combination of things," Zmijanac said.
Unquestionably, the style of football has changed over the past 10-20 years and might play a huge role in causing the blowouts. More teams use spread offenses, no-huddle offenses and score more points. The faster teams score, the more they can score and the quicker and more decisively they blow away an inferior opponent.
Statistics tell the story.
Last year, there were 37 quarterbacks in the WPIAL and City League who threw for 1,000 yards or more. Thirty-years ago, only 17 threw for 1,000.
Sixty years ago, only 11 teams in the WPIAL and City League scored 50 points in a game the entire season. There were 12 WPIAL teams that scored 50 points or more on one night two weeks ago and nine last Friday.
"I attribute a lot of the blowouts to the adoptions of spread offenses," Montour coach Lou Cerro said. "Some schools just don't have the speed and the athletes to stop teams. Teams are getting the ball out quicker and there is more speed. There are still 300-pound linemen, but teams have speed to match up with it."
But even teams that don't throw the ball a ton are blowing out teams. Mars didn't attempt one pass last week and defeated Hollidaysburg, 69-14.
"Maybe all the turf fields have something to do with it," Zmijanac said. "Very few games around here are played in the mud and that might factor in."
Teams that had bad records 30-40 years ago were still able to be competitive. They might lose 21-0 or 28-0. On a comparative basis, the bad teams nowadays seem worse than the bad teams years ago.
Since 1952, there have only been four WPIAL games with an 80-point margin, and all four were in the past three seasons.
Many coaches say what is also a big factor in blowouts is school size and roster size. Statistics show fewer student-athletes are playing high school football in the country these days, mainly because of fear of concussions. Last year, there were 25,000 fewer players across the country than four years ago.
Enrollment at most schools in the WPIAL is down dramatically compared to three or four decades ago. Smaller schools means smaller football rosters. Teams in the smaller classifications don't have as many talented athletes and not much depth to compete against the better teams.
Avella is a Class A program that struggled for years and had a roster in the teens only a few years ago. This season, Avella has 24 players and is on the verge of making the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 1976.
"I don't have any data to support this, but we only have four classifications in Pennsylvania and some states have five or six," said Ryan Cecchini, Avella's third-year coach. "If you had more classes, you would play against schools more your size and you'd be able to be more competitive. Sometimes, we'll play a big Class A school that has two-and-a-half or three times as many students as us. That makes it hard to compete."
Some coaches believe coaching is one of the reasons for the increase in blowouts. These days, there is significant turnover in head coaches on the high school level.
"You have a revolving door at some places and continuity is very important in high school," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. "You get younger coaches in there who may not know as much as veteran coaches and that's a factor."
But are the blowouts just a passing fad or will they end in the near future?
"What's the answer? I don't know," Zmijanac said. "But I can't imagine it being any different in the near future."
Lopsidedness through the years
Through the first 8 weeks of this season, the number of wins by 40 points or more has more than doubled that of 1993. Here's a look over the past 60 years:
That's the average score in WPIAL football games through the first 8 weeks of the 2013 season. Here's the average score by classification:
Source: Christopher Protho, unofficial WPIAL statistician
That 80's show
Since 1952, there have been four WPIAL games where a team won by 80 points or more. All four have been in the past three seasons:
Gateway 85, Norwin 0
Clairton 85, Avella 0
Frazier 81, Geibel 0
Beth-Center 80, Bentworth 0
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh