West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler was on the brink of leading his team to the final stretch of roadway on the Highway to Heinz Field.
But just when "Wheels" was about to accelerate, Franklin Regional tossed out a roadblock.
Spurred by a big fourth-down stop with just over a minute left, Franklin Regional advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals for the second time in three years after defeating West Mifflin, 14-12, Friday night in a quarterfinal at East Allegheny.
Franklin Regional 14, West Mifflin 12
Franklin Regional meets West Mifflin in a WPIAL AAA quarterfinal football game. (Video by John Heller; 11/8/2013)
Franklin Regional (10-1), which has won eight games in a row, advances to play No. 1 seed and defending champion West Allegheny. West Mifflin (9-2) was looking to reach the title game for the second year in a row.
Wheeler, the WPIAL rushing leader, ran for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, but Franklin Regional stopped him when it needed to the most. Trailing, 14-12, with 5:22 left in the game, West Mifflin began a drive at its 31 and drove to the Franklin Regional 30. Facing a fourth-and-2 with 1:15 remaining, Wheeler took a handoff and ran right, but was swarmed and fell 1 yard short of the first down. Franklin Regional took possession and ran out the clock.
"They were moving the football. It was a matter of executing," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "[Defensive coordinator Frank] Cortazzo went into a goal-line defense. These guys did what they needed to do and wrapped up Jimmy."
Said West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo: "That was our power play. Usually we can get something out of it. I guess they stacked up out there and made a good stop."
Franklin Regional's Casey Colagrande made two pivotal plays in a two-minute stretch midway through the third quarter.
Colagrande stripped West Mifflin quarterback Karlyn Garner at the West Mifflin 40 and Franklin Regional recovered the fumble at the 25. On first-and-goal, Brett Zanotto ran toward the end zone, but fumbled just inside the 3. A West Mifflin player tried to pick it up, but couldn't. Colagrande recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. The extra point put Franklin Regional ahead, 14-6.
"I thought they had it at first," Franklin Regional quarterback Charan Singh said. "I was so surprised when they called it a touchdown because I thought Casey had it on the 1-yard line."
West Mifflin responded with a 12-play drive that saw Wheeler score from 1 yard. West Mifflin went for the 2-point conversion, but Wheeler was stopped short.
Franklin Regional ran the ball well, finishing with 206 yards. Singh had 83 yards and Zanotto added 74. All of Zanotto's yards came in the second half on direct snaps out of a wildcat formation.
West Mifflin whiffed on some golden opportunities early in the game. The Titans had the ball inside the Franklin Regional 20 on both of their first two drives, but came away without any points. On the opening series, Franklin Regional stuffed Wheeler on fourth-and-goal from the 1. On West Mifflin's next drive, Garner fumbled at the 17 and Franklin Regional recovered.
"You want to score first, especially in a game like this," Braszo said. "When you get down there, you have to score. If we score, it's a different game."
The teams then exchanged touchdowns. Singh scored on a keeper from 4 yards with 4:35 left in the half to cap an eight-play, 59-yard drive that put Franklin Regional ahead, 7-0. But West Mifflin quickly responded. Two plays after a 31-yard run, Wheeler sprinted up the middle and cut to the left for a 22-yard touchdown. The extra point was blocked.
"This is great," Zanotto said. "Everyone is so excited. It's great for the seniors to keep playing. We're motivated and we want to keep on rolling."