The State College Little Lions will face a familiar opponent when they face the McDowell Trojans today at Slippery Rock University in a PIAA Class AAAA subregional game.
The 1 p.m. contest will pit State College against a school it defeated in subregional action in both 2008 and 2009, sending the Little Lions to the PIAA quarterfinals each year.
While the McDowell (6-5) names may not be the same, State College Coach Al Wolski is familiar with the team’s strategy.
“They basically run similar things offensively and defensively, but the personnel have changed and I think they’ve gotten a lot stronger and tougher,” Wolski said.
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The Trojans enter on a four-game winning streak with an average score of 55-8 during that span.
“We’ve just told our guys to go watch tape,” Wolski said. “It’s kind of evident how good they are if you watch one or two games.”
The tape undoubtedly shows a powerful and consistent McDowell rushing attack. The Trojans have thrown the ball just 67 times for 454 yards during the season and have yet to throw a touchdown pass. In stark contrast, they have rushed 437 times for 3,124 yards (over 7 per carry) and 37 touchdowns.
“They’re a run first team,” Wolski said. “They have two big running backs and they just run it down your throat.”
At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, senior running back James Conner leads the Trojans in rushing with 1,303 yards on just 118 carries — more than 11 yards per rush. He also leads the team with 17 touchdowns. Fellow senior Khyre Drayer is second in rushing with 656 yards on 113 carries for nearly six yards per attempt.
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Drayer was selected to represent the state of Pennsylvania at the 25th Down Under Bowl in Australia in July.
State College (9-3) might change some of this week’s preparation to combat McDowell’s run-first approach, but tackling the Trojans’ physical running backs is something difficult to prepare for.
“Well it’s tougher when they’ve got a guy who’s 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and can run,” Wolski said. “We’ll game plan a little bit differently against that kind of attack but even if you’re in position, stopping a guy with that kind of size, strength and speed is tough. We can coach them up to get into the right position but actually getting in there and making a tackle on somebody that big — when he has a head of steam — is tough.”
In its 35-13 victory over a potent DuBois offense last week, State College’s Evan Galimberti anchored a stout defense that allowed just 204 yards, less than half of the Beavers’ usual output.
Galimberti, a senior, had three, first half sacks and made several key tackles against the run, including a fourth-and-two stop near mid-field with the Beavers driving while trailing just 21-7.
“We felt coming in that he may have been a little bit stronger up front … and he proved it,” Wolski said. “He did an excellent job. We expected him to have a good game and he did.”
The Little Lions offense also played well. Junior quarterback Patrick Irwin led the team in both passing (124 yards) and rushing (132 yards), including an 88-yard option-read rushing touchdown. State College accumulated 321 yards total on the ground.
“The thing that people don’t realize about (Irwin) is the reads he makes on the option,” Wolski said. “His reads were good and sound last week and that helped us move the football.”
Wolski is pleased with the hard work and progress of his signal caller.
“He’s just gotten better over time as he’s continued to watch some film,” Wolski said. “He just works hard. He has natural talent and he’s got some size and speed and he’s just really worked on getting better over time.”
But it’s the balance of the State College rushing attack that makes it effective. Senior Ryan Goeke leads the team in yards and touchdowns with 604 and six respectively. Senior Andrew Kelly is second with 473 yards and five touchdowns. Irwin is third with 435 yards and four touchdowns and Ebrahim Britton, a senior, is next with 387 yards and four touchdowns.
Irwin has also contributed in the air with 1,484 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The McDowell defense has been tested all season by a difficult schedule, a fact not lost on Wolski. The Trojans have played four powerful Ohio programs and though they lost each game, three out of the four were decided by two scores or less.
“Even though they didn’t win those games they were still playing against good football teams,” Wolski said. “Their record isn’t in any way indicative of the type of team they are.”
“They’re as big and as physical of a team as we’ve seen all year. They just hit the heck out of you every opportunity they get and they’re probably more physical than any team we’ve played in the Mid Penn.”
Defeating McDowell would send State College to the PIAA quarterfinals for a fifth straight year.