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The Fox Chapel Area High School football team doesn't throw the ball much. Turns out, there's a reason for that.
The Foxes threw six passes during Friday night's non-conference game against visiting Baldwin High School, and only one was caught ... by a Baldwin player.
The Highlanders' sophomore linebacker Donald West stepped in front of a short pass from junior quarterback Brandon Mitchell early in the third quarter, intercepted it and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown to give Baldwin High its first lead of the game, 13-10.
It was the Highlanders' first defensive or special teams TD of the season, and it went a long way toward giving Baldwin an eventual 27-20 WPIAL AAAA victory.
"I was lined up on the third receiver, and when I dropped back, I saw the running back come out on a bubble (screen)," West said when describing the play. "I immediately took off forward, and I caught the ball in full stride and ran full speed down the sideline."
Nevertheless, in a truly back-and-forth game that saw three lead changes in the second half alone, Fox Chapel Area scored the game's next 10 points for a 20-13 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
But Baldwin scored the only 14 points of the final period, getting 28- and 18-yard TD runs from senior running back Dorian Brown and junior utilityman Nick Barca, respectively.
Despite Fox Chapel's 320 total offensive yards compared to Baldwin's 202, it was the Highlanders' offense that made the difference in the fourth. Brown's score with 8 minutes, 46 seconds left came at the end of a 10-play, 60-yard drive, and Barca's came with exactly 4 minutes remaining to cap off a seven-play, 80-yard one.
Brown rushed 11 times for 70 yards in the fourth as part of his game-high totals of 23 carries, 137 yards and two TDs. But there were big plays made by other members of the Highlanders' offense in the fourth, as well, that were devastating for Fox Chapel, including a third-down, 13-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Doug Altavilla to junior wide receiver Gary Jackson during the drive that tied the game at 20 and a 21-yard pass from Altavilla to junior utilityman Luke Smorey that drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on the drive that ended with Barca's game-winning TD.
Baldwin (2-5 overall) snapped a four-game losing streak by taking advantage of and spoiling Homecoming for a struggling Fox Chapel team (1-6 overall).
"It's better than losing," Baldwin's Head Coach Jim Wehner said. "If we can beat anybody, I'll take it."
Fox Chapel represents the only non-conference opponent on Baldwin's schedule this season. The Highlanders are in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference with some of the WPIAL's best programs.
"We needed to get back on track and do some things that were fundamentally sound (this week)," Wehner said. "I think we did that tonight to a certain extent."
They had some help, as well, from a Fox Chapel squad that couldn't overcome its mistakes.
The Foxes fumbled an astonishing eight times, even though they, perhaps more astonishingly, only lost two of them. But those two hurt badly.
Leading, 10-7, late in the second quarter, the Foxes were set to receive a Baldwin punt at the Highlanders' 45-yard line, but junior running back/defensive back Nigel Garnett—who was tagged with three fumbles for the game—couldn't handle the Smorey boot and gave Baldwin the ball back when West recovered Garnett's gaffe.
Baldwin couldn't score again before halftime, but the Foxes had wasted a golden opportunity.
Down, 27-20, in the fourth, Fox Chapel, looking like it could tie the game, was bitten by another turnover. Facing a third-and-5 at the Baldwin 39, Mitchell took the ball on a quarterback keeper and seemed to have enough yards for a first down, but Barca popped the ball loose to be recovered by teammate and sophomore defensive lineman William Jackson with just 1:57 remaining. The play effectively sealed the game.
Like Garnett, Mitchell also fumbled three times.
Barca, who was dynamic to say the least, forced two of those Mitchell fumbles as part of an impressive game-high 19 total tackles. In fact, Barca's 12 solo tackles would have been enough to lead all total tacklers. Jackson added nine tackles for Baldwin, including seven solo tops.
West made three tackles (all solo) to go with his interception and fumble recovery.
Fox Chapel started the game's scoring when it recovered its own pooch kickoff at the Baldwin 39 on the first play. A methodical 10 plays later, sophomore running back/linebacker Carrington Vaughn found the end zone on a two-yard rush.
Baldwin handled the ball twice after that—and Fox Chapel once—before the Foxes went on an eight-play, 38-yard drive that ended with senior placekicker Ben Mroz's 39-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 6:32 left in the second quarter.
Each team punted on their next possessions, but the Foxes' punt hurt worse as it was blocked by junior wide receiver William Howley to give the Highlanders the ball at the Fox Chapel 15.
On the very next play, Brown spun away from a couple of would-be tacklers and into the end zone to help to cut the score to 10-7, where it would remain until West's interception return in the third.
West said that the Highlanders were inspired on Friday by an injured teammate.
"We played that game for Jay, for sure," West said in reference to junior defensive back Jay Morrison, who is out indefinitely after suffering a scary head and shoulder injury in Baldwin's 35-7 loss to Woodland Hills High School on Oct. 5. "In our mind, before the game, it was all Jay."
Said Wehner, "We told them (Baldwin's players), 'You never know when this is going to be your last play. Think about Jay when times get tough. Think about Jay.'
"Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn't."
To its credit, Fox Chapel responded to West's TD return extremely well.
After Baldwin missed the ensuing extra point, the Foxes went 83 yards over 13 plays, including a four-yard TD run by Mitchell, and a Mroz point-after made the score 17-13.
Brown then fumbled the following kickoff, which Fox Chapel recovered at the Baldwin 11. The Foxes were in a great position to go up by two scores, but they shot themselves in the foot when, two plays later, a five-yard Mitchell rushing TD was wiped out by a block in the back that pushed the ball all the way back to the 19.
Fox Chapel settled for a 32-yard Mroz field goal and a 20-13 lead, but that only set the stage for the Highlanders' fourth-quarter offense.
Running tight option plays and short misdirections for most of the game, Mitchell (21 carries, 124 yards) and Garnett (17 carries, 112 yards) combined for 236 rushing yards.
Along with his outstanding defense, Barca had four carries for 32 yards.
Altavilla finished just 3-for-14 passing but netted 42 yards on his completions. He also threw a first-quarter interception. Smorey made two catches for 29 yards.
The Foxes' defensive leaders were Garnett and Vaughn, each of whom made five tackles (all solo). Garnett forced a fumble.
Fox Chapel's junior defensive end Quinton Wirginis made three tackles (all solo), including the game's only sack, and had his team's only pick.
Despite dry—albeit brisk—weather, Baldwin and Fox Chapel combined for 13 fumbles. Only three were lost.
Fox Chapel had a 29:22-18:38 advantage in time of possession.
Baldwin returns to conference action on Oct. 19 with a 7:30 p.m. game at Canon-McMillan High School (1-6, 1-5 Southeastern). Baldwin (1-5 in the conference, as well) will almost certainly have to win its final two games of the regular season to have a shot at a WPIAL playoffs berth.
Fox Chapel (1-4 Northern Eight Conference) has a conference game at Butler Area High School (3-4 overall, 2-3 Northern Eight) at the same time.
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