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Upper St. Clair High School won the opening coin toss. Simply, it was a sign of things to come.
The host Panthers (5-0, 5-0) dominated Baldwin High School (1-4, 1-4) on Friday night in a WPIAL AAAA Southeastern Conference football game, racing out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead and finishing with an impressive 47-6 victory.
Upper St. Clair never punted in the game, and when the Panthers' junior wide receiver Mike McGuire returned the second half's opening kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown—USC deferred their coin-toss decision in the first half—by rule, the game clock mercifully started running to end the contest quicker.
The Highlanders were without six regular starters, their Head Coach Jim Wehner said—many for disciplinary reasons and star senior running back Dorian Brown due to a leg injury—but Wehner still tipped his cap to a St. Clair squad that seems poised for a run at a 2012 WPIAL title.
"They're a good football team," Wehner said. "It's the same situation as last week (a 42-7 Baldwin loss at home to Mt. Lebanon High School). They're bigger than us, they get off the ball, and we have to find a way to contain them."
Wehner was still critical of his team's own performance.
"If we don't block and tackle, we're not gonna be any good," he said. "It's the same situation the last two weeks."
Upper St. Clair's big offensive line looked at least like a small college's against the overmatched Highlanders. The Panthers used 10 different ball-carriers to rush for 205 yards and six TDs, compared to 25 yards and no TDs for Baldwin (hurt badly by 31 yards lost on six sacks of sophomore quarterback Doug Altavilla).
The Panthers line also prevented the Highlanders from putting much pressure on senior quarterback Pete Coughlin, who went 5-for-5 passing for 75 yards and no sacks.
Altavilla, who played much better than the game's final score shows, went 8-for-14 passing for 141 yards, including a 32-yard TD pass to junior wide receiver/defensive back Gary Jackson.
"I thought this was Doug's best game," Wehner said.
But the better offensive machine were the Coughlin-led Panthers, who, other than one fumble and the end of both halves, were stopped only by the goal line on Friday night.
"(The offensive linemen) are doing a great job out there," Coughlin said. "They're just giving me time, opening up holes for all the backs (and) doing a great job throughout the whole game—throughout the whole season."
Coughlin said that he and his teammates are taking things one game at a time on their way to a promising 5-0 start, aiming at short-term goals along the way.
"Our biggest goal right now is, 'Win the conference,'" Coughlin said, "and then, from there on, hopefully, make it to the WPIAL championship. And hopefully, win that. Then, beyond that, state championship."
The Highlanders, meanwhile, are in a dogfight for one of the Southeastern Conference's guaranteed five playoffs spots (out of nine teams). With three conference games yet to play this season, Baldwin might have to win out to have a shot at the postseason.
"We're gonna keep after it," Wehner said. "That's all you can do is try to keep getting better and better.
"I still think we can cause some damage (this season)."
Wehner said that Baldwin's suspended players on Friday—junior defensive back Jay Morrison and junior placekicker Yahya Badjie were among them—will be back for the Highlanders' next game.
"I'm a firm believer (that) you gotta start with discipline," Wehner said. "I'd rather lose a game than let someone do what they wanna do (break team rules)."
Morrison, who, despite missing the St. Clair game, is still Baldwin's leading tackler this season with 17 more stops than any of his teammates, was missed sorely on Friday. The Panthers methodically marched to TDs on each of their first five possessions, relying mostly on a running game that gouged big holes in Baldwin's defensive front and outraced its defensive backfield.
St. Clair's junior running back Steve Mackowick opened the scoring with an eight-yard run to cap a five-play, 55-yard drive in the first quarter, followed by first-quarter TD runs of one and seven yards by classmates and fellow running backs Phil Saracco and Mac Pope, respectively. Saracco's score ended a two-play, 23-yard drive, and Pope's capped a four-play, 47-yard one.
Mackowick led all Panthers with 51 yards on four carries, followed by sophomore running back Mike Krenn's 41 yards on five carries and Pope's 35 yards on five attempts.
Baldwin's junior running back/wide receiver Nick Barca, filling in for Brown, led all players with 56 yards on 15 carries. Barca also tied for the game-high with eight tackles, including a game-high-tying five solo stops.
"We wanted to see who can step up as our tailback the following year," Wehner said, "and I think, tonight, we found a kid (Barca) that could run the ball to a certain extent."
USC added two more scores in the second quarter—a one-yard run by senior running back Nick Trancredi to complete an eight-play, 70-yard drive and a two-yard rush by fellow senior running back Gabe Boyd to finish a six-play, 38-yard trip.
Trancredi added a three-yard TD in the fourth quarter to complete a six-play, 25-yard drive. He finished the game with 24 yards on five carries. Boyd had identical numbers. Saracco had 10 yards on two carries.
Baldwin's only score came in the third quarter by way of Jackson's one-handed 32-yard strike from Altavilla. That play actually finished the longest drive of the game for either team—75 yards on 10 snaps.
Jackson finished the game with two catches for 38 yards. Baldwin's junior utilityman Luke Smorey (a game-high 57 yards) and junior running backs Stephon Harris (24 yards) and Justin Zinsmeister (22 yards) also had two catches apiece, as did USC's Pope (50 yards) and sophomore wide receiver Ben Southorn (16 yards).
USC's junior linebacker J.J. Conn tied Barca with eight tackles (five solo). Classmate and fellow linebacker Kyle Page had five tackles (all solo) for the Panthers, including a sack for a loss of 11 yards, and junior safety Morgan Lee had four tackles (all solo) and the game's only interception—a pickoff of Barca on a flea-flicker near the end of the first half.
Jackson made seven tackles (five solo) for Baldwin, and teammate and senior defensive tackle Zack Nieman made four (three solo).
St. Clair Head Coach Jim Render acknowledged that Baldwin was playing shorthanded but credited his team's execution nonetheless.
"Some of their better players didn't play," Render said, "but we have to take care of our team. And (we) answered the bell."
USC next plays at Butler Area High School (2-3 overall) for a non-conference game on Friday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m.
Baldwin faces conference foe Woodland Hills High School (3-2, 2-2) at home at that same time on the Highlanders' Homecoming night.
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