State College coach Matt Lintal knows if the oddsmakers in Las Vegas were setting the line for Saturday’s PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal clash against Pine-Richland that his Little Lions would be heavy underdogs.
The Rams come into the 1 p.m. kickoff at Altoona’s Mansion Park with a 13-0 record, a WPIAL title and ranked second in the state.
State College is 6-6, having needed three straight wins, including two in the postseason, to square its record.
While all of the numbers are seeming stacked in Pine-Richland’s favor, Lintal isn’t ready to waive the white flag.
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“Obviously, there’s not a lot of people that are going to pick us in this ballgame and that’s fine with us,” Lintal said. “We feel like we can go out and compete with anybody. We’ve played some phenomenal teams throughout the season and phenomenal individuals at different positions. … This is just a team that has a lot of those guys.”
The Rams feature a high-flying offense that is averaging 41.2 points and 436.3 yards per game.
Ben Dinucci, who is headed to Penn, has put up incredible numbers at quarterback. He’s completed 207 of 288 attempts (72 percent) for 3,470 yards and 35 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
His favorite targets are Mike Merhaut (81 catches, 1,289 yards, 13 TDs) and D’ondre Gastion (49 catches, 1,048 yards, 12 TDs). He can also hand the ball off to 225-pound battering ram Connor Slomka, who has rushed for 1,285 yards on 194 carries and has scored 32 touchdowns.
“He’s pretty phenomenal and he has some great targets to throw it to and a phenomenal offensive line that’s tough to get through,” Lintal said of Dinucci. “He does a great job putting the ball on the money. He’s probably the most accurate passer we’ve seen all year long, really has a strong arm and can get rid of the ball in a hurry.
“They do a lot of things to spread you out. They’re not a typical WPIAL team. They are more of an Oregon style offense that’s going to throw a lot of quick screens and get the ball into their playmakers’ hands. They’re not going to run a whole bunch, but they’ve got a really good and big running back and a lot of skill kids out on the perimeter.”
State College’s defense has been up to the challenge so far in the postseason against two quarterbacks with big numbers. DuBois’ Gabe French, who had thrown for 40 touchdowns in the regular season, was picked off three times in the Little Lions’ 29-7 win. Eric McDowell’s Jake Tarasovitch, who had rushed for more than 1,000 yards, was held to three yards in a 27-6 win for State College.
Barrett McMurtry, Lonnie Koudela, Sheldon Davis and Drew Linnes have dominated the line of scrimmage in the postseason. They’ve led a goal-line stand in each playoff game after a late first-half turnover.
“Those guys have been spectacular,” Lintal said. “In critical downs, they’re making huge plays and in the last few weeks quarterbacks have known that they were there.”
The Little Lions offensive line — Mark Wealand (LT), Zach Lindau (LG), Matt Harpster (C), Doug Swoboda (RG) and Wade Bonsell (LT) — has opened the holes for Jordan Misher, who has gained 301 yards and has scored five touchdowns in the postseason.
“I think every game comes down to those guys in the trenches,” Lintal said of both lines. “The past three or four games we’ve played they’ve really dominated up front. … That’s been the biggest difference in our team. Our kids are playing more physical now. We started the year with a lot of young kids and they’ve played a lot of football. We’re finally at that point where those kids aren’t young anymore.”
Tight end Brett Graham is one of those players who benefitted from more experience. He’s leading the Little Lions with 35 receptions and is critical to the running game.
“He has come on throughout the season,” Lintal said of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior. “He started out as a good player and he’s finishing this year as a great player. He’s a threat in the passing game and a great blocker out front.”
While the statistics may not shape up in his team’s favor, Lintal sure likes the venue.
“We’ve got them in Altoona which is a field our kids have played on since eighth grade,” he said. “It kind of feels like a home field for us. They’re familiar with it and we have a scrimmage there every year.”
And the Little Lions could catch the Rams thinking about the future.
“Where we’re at record-wise, I think it’s easy for them to overlook us,” he said. “They have 13 wins right now and we’ve got six. … We’re going to make sure at the end of this football game that they know they’ve played a football game and what State College football is all about.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” he added. “We’ve had a year of ups-and-downs, but we’re really happy where we are right now. Our kids are playing the best football that we’ve played all season long. We’ve got a great task in front of us and our kids aren’t going to back down from the challenge.”