Friday, November 16, 2012

WPIAL Semi-Finals Preview

Tonight eight teams will punch their tickets to Heinz Field and WPIAL Championship games. All four of the top seeds remain but only in AA are the top 4 teams playing in the Semi-Finals. As is fairly typical of the WPIAL Semi-Finals, they are dominated by "powerhouse" schools, including 3 of the 4 defending Champions.


1. North Allegheny (7-0, 11-0) vs 4. Seneca Valley (6-1, 10-1) at North Hills
Quad-A features two rematches of conference clashes. On one half of the bracket, the top two teams from the Northern Eight square off. North Allegheny blew out Seneca Valley 45-3 back in Week 3. These are the top two offenses in Quad-A with North Allegheny having the edge on defense. The Tigers are led by QB Mack Leftwich who is 6th in the WPIAL with over 2000 passing yards. Seneca Valley's Jordan Brown isn't far behind, with over 1700 yards on the season but almost double Leftwich's touchdown total (50 to 27 in favor of Brown). The Raiders also have the top running back in Quad-A in Forrest Barnes who has run for 1640 yards and added another 240 in receiving. All told, Barnes has found the end zone 30 times this season. NA has spread their touchdowns around between leading receiver Gregg Garrity and leading rusher Alex DiCiantis. The difference in this game will be on defense where North Allegheny's unit is clearly better. If the Tigers can keep the Raiders short passing game bottled up as they did in the first meeting, they will head back to Heinz Field for a shot at their third consecutive title. Prediction: North Allegheny

3. Upper St Clair (7-1, 10-1) vs 7. Woodland Hills (6-2, 9-2) at Baldwin
The Panthers pounded Central Catholic 38-0 last Friday and are one game away from a rematch of last year's title game with North Allegheny where they fell in overtime. Because of conference realignment, the Panthers and Wolverines were both in the Southeastern Conference this season, but their meeting was way back in the first week of the season when Upper St Clair won 31-12. Since then, the Wolverines offense has been much better, scoring 27 or more in every game until their 17-14 win over Gateway last week. The Panthers are clearly the better defensive team and haven't given up a point yet in the playoffs with 5 total shutouts on the season. The big story of this game will be the matchup of legendary coaches Jim Render and George Novak. Render is the WPIAL's all-time leader in wins with 364 wins and four WPIAL titles. Novak is fourth on the list with 267 wins and six WPIAL titles. Legendary coaching matchups are always tough to pick, but I know better than to pick against Jim Render in the playoffs. Prediction: Upper St Clair


1. Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 11-0) vs 4. West Allegheny (7-1, 10-1) at Bethel Park
The two most successful AAA programs over the past decade face off for the right to go to Heinz Field. TJ has seen a resurgence this season (after a "down" year last year where they only made the quarterfinals) on the backs of a strong passing game, led by 2200-yard passer Joe Carroll. This is another matchup of strength-on-strength as TJ's AAA-leading offense (43 points per game) squares off against the best defense in AAA in West Allegheny. Since their loss to Central Valley at the end of September, the Indians haven't allowed more than one score against them in any games, including two shutouts last week's game against Montour where the Spartans only score was a safety. West Allegheny's offense isn't spectacular, but they can ground and pound with the best of them and have relied on their defense to win games. Prediction: Thomas Jefferson

3. Central Valley (7-1, 9-2) vs 7. West Mifflin (7-1, 10-1) at North Allegheny
The merger of Center and Monaca school districts might have been one of the most successful mergers from a football standpoint in state history since the incorporation of Woodland Hills 25 years ago. In their 3 years of existence, the Warriors have made the Semi-Finals each year and won the WPIAL title two years ago. If they are going to make it back to Heinz, they are going to need another strong performance from Robert Foster, one of the best players in the state. West Mifflin has the best rushing attack in AAA, led by 2000-yard rusher Jimmy Wheeler. Both teams know how to find the end zone and had offenses in the top 5 in AAA. Central Valley was my preseason pick for AAA champion, so I'm going to stick with them, even though their leading passer and leading rusher are still sidelined with injury. Don't be shocked if West Mifflin finds their way to Heinz though. Prediction: Central Valley


1. Aliquippa (7-0, 11-0) vs 4. Jeanette (7-1, 10-1) at Peters Twp
In a rematch of last year's championship game, two of the most storied AA programs square off for the right to return to Heinz. Aliquippa has played on the Heinz Field grass in four consecutive seasons. The Quips have the top-ranked offense and defense in AA and feature a slew of players with Division 1 talent. This Jeanette team isn't as good as the team that reached Heinz Field last year, but they have the speed to run with Aliquippa. That said, Aliquippa is simply too talented on both sides of the ball and if Jeanette has any hope of winning they're going to have to hope the Quips turn the ball over. Prediction: Aliquippa

2. South Fayette (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. Washington (8-0, 11-0) at Chartiers Valley
Two unbeatens square off in a collision of styles featuring two of the top players in all the WPIAL. South Fayette sophomore Brett Brumbaugh is the WPIAL's leading passer with 2583 yards and Washington junior RB Shai McKenzie leads the WPIAL in rushing with over 2300 yards. South Fayette also features a dominant defense that pitched 6 shutouts this season. The Lions probably haven't seen an offense as good as Washington's all year and it will be a test of Washington's run game if they are able to control the clock and keep South Fayette's offense off the field. South Fayette has the 2nd-ranked offense and defense in AA while Washington ranks 3rd in both categories. This should be a great matchup. I predicted Washington in the championship game in my preseason picks, and I'm sticking with them to pull the upset. Prediction: Washington


1. Clairton (9-0, 11-0) vs 13. Neshannock (7-1, 10-1) at Chartiers-Houston
Bout Dat Nation features one of the top players in all of Pennsylvania in RB Tyler Boyd who has led the team to two blowout wins in the playoffs. In two games, Boyd has 26 carries for over 500 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns plus another receiving touchdown. On the season, only 3 players in the entire WPIAL that had more than 10 carries are averaging more than Boyd's 14.3 yards per carry. Guess what? Two of them play with him. Clairton's Tarrish Webb (13 carries, 370 yards, 28.5 ypc) and Titus Howard (11 carries, 189 yards, 17.2 ypc) have higher yards per carry but nowhere near Boyd's 129 attempts. The most impressive stat might be that Boyd is 3rd in the WPIAL in rushing (1800 yards) despite having at least 70 less carries than everyone else in the top 12 (except Washington's Shai McKenzie who has 44 more carries than Boyd). Neshannock has never been this deep in the playoffs and has been carried by dual-threat QB Ernie Burkes who had 1500 yards passing and almost 800 yards rushing. Neshannock is a good team, but Clairton is simply too good. Prediction: Clairton

2. Sto-Rox (7-1, 10-1) vs 6. North Catholic (7-1, 9-2) at Dormont Stadium
The Vikings are looking to get back to Heinz Field and get a shot at redemption against a Clairton team that pounded them in the Championship Game last year. On the other side, the Trojans are looking to reach their first Championship Game in school history. North Catholic pulled an upset of Rochester in the quarterfinals by pounding the rock with sophomore PJ Fulmore and junior fullback Jared Fragapane, especially out of a wildcat set. Fulmore was 9th in the WPIAL in rushing with over 1600 yards this season, but has the lowest yards per carry average of any of the top 10 backs. While he is not a big play hitter and North Catholic does not have a dominant offense, they rely on controlling the ball and the clock with their ground game. On the flip side, Sto-Rox junior QB Lenny Williams was 7th in the WPIAL in passing with over 1900 yards. Sto-Rox averages almost 40 points per game, and the only way the Trojans are going to make their first trip to Heinz is if their run game can control the clock and keep the Viking offense on the sidelines. That said, I'm a North Catholic alum and there's no way I'm picking against my Alma Mater. Homer Pick: North Catholic

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