PIAA Class AAAA semifinals: North Allegheny vs. Wilson
North Allegheny's Brendan Coniker carries back an interception against McDowell in the PIAA quarterfinals last Friday.
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As teams advance closer to the end of the season, the common phrase and blueprint for those with title aspirations is that "defense wins championships."
It's a widely used expression that more than borders on cliche, but, more often than not, it rings true, especially for elite teams such as North Allegheny.
With standout players such as quarterback Mack Leftwich and wide receiver Gregg Garrity, among others, the Tigers offense understandably gets a good amount of attention, but the team's defense has been a big reason for its undefeated record, one it will hope to maintain as it travels to Altoona Saturday to face Wilson High School from West Lawn, just outside Reading. Game time at Mansion Park Stadium is 3 p.m.
This season, North Allegheny (14-0) has given up just 7.3 points per game, a statistic that doesn't even fully convey its defensive prowess this season. In their 14 games, the Tigers have not given up more than 17 points in a game on a schedule that included top offensive teams such as Gateway (38.4 points per game), Seneca Valley (37.7) and Mt. Lebanon (30.5).
"They're a big part of everything we do, that's for sure," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. "Defense is a big part of the reason why we're 14-0 right now."
It's also a unit that has shown significant signs of improvement. This time last season, the defense, while still good, was giving up more than double the points per game (15.3).
Last week, the Tigers turned in what could have been their best defensive performance of the season, limiting a James Conner-led McDowell offense to 155 total yards and six points, a season-low for a team that was averaging 39 points per game.
Against Wilson, North Allegheny will get somewhat of a mirror image, at least as far as defense is concerned. The Bulldogs (13-1) have given up nearly an identical number of points per game, 7.4, and since their 21-13 loss to Harrisburg on Sept. 7, they have not given up more than 14 points in a game.
Offensively, while Wilson has excelled, it has taken some extra tinkering from coach Doug Dahms to get things to work. The Bulldogs started the season with freshman Kyle Gaynor at quarterback, but have since alternated between Kevin Weller and Matt Timochenko under center, the latter of whom started their 39-14 victory against Harrisburg last week.
Any instability in the Bulldogs passing game has been more than made up for on the ground, where they have three running backs who have gained at least 275 yards this season. Most notably, Jim Brooks and Jesse Poore have formed a potent backfield combination, as the two players have combined for 1,388 yards (673 for Brooks, 715 for Poore) and 30 touchdowns (20 for Brooks, 10 for Poore).
"We've changed quarterbacks, so we have relied more on the running game -- a couple of fast backs, a couple of big backs," Dahms said. "We've probably run more than we usually do."
In addition to their overpowering defenses, Wilson and North Allegheny have the shared distinction of having lost to Central Dauphin in the PIAA playoffs last season -- Wilson in the quarterfinals and North Allegheny in the semifinals the following week.
A year removed from disappointing ends to successful seasons, both teams remain ready and motivated to gain a measure of redemption and for the chance to play for the state championship.
"I think it's one of those situations where we've been there before and they understand what it was like to lose on a last-second field goal last season," Walker said. "They're ready to take advantage of the opportunity that they have."
First Published December 7, 2012 12:00 am