You wouldn’t think in a game that featured more than 930 yards of total offense, 11 touchdowns and 55 first downs that a 13-yard pass play that didn’t move the ball across midfield would make much of a difference.
But with State College mounting a comeback in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals at Mansion Park, Mike Merhaut made the play of the game for Pine-Richland. The diminutive receiver’s first-down catch fueled a key touchdown march as the Rams pulled away to a 49-29 triumph over the Little Lions on Saturday.
Ben DiNucci threw for three touchdowns and ran for another for Pine-Richland (14-0) which advances to face Wilson, a 21-10 winner over Central Dauphin, in the semifinals. Jordan Misher rushed for 152 yards and caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from John Weakland for the Little Lions (6-7).
State College, a prohibitive underdog, fell behind by 14 points in the first half, but had the momentum early in the third quarter. Noah Schwab’s 20-yard field goal on the last play of the first half made the score 21-10.
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With the ball to start the second half, Weakland found Misher streaking through the middle of the Ram defense for the 59-yarder that cut the margin to 21-17 with 9:36 still left in the third quarter.
Facing third-and-13 from the 32 after two plays on the ensuing drive, DiNucci tossed a receiver screen to Merhaut, who shook two tackles as two Little Lions crashed into each other, then stretched his 5-foot-8 frame to reach the ball to the 45, just enough by inches for the first down.
“That was huge,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “It was a screen pass and he broke a couple of tackles and ended up getting a first down for us. That’s Mike. He’s been doing that all year for us. He’s our heart and soul. He continues to make play after play. He made another great individual effort there.”
“There’s a lot of plays that will stick out and that is definitely one of them,” State College coach Matt Lintal said. “We had him wrapped up there with a chance to not have it go.”
Instead of a punt, the Rams then marched down the field behind the bruising running of 6-foot, 220-pound Connor Slomka. Slomka carried four times for 31 yards to set up DiNucci’s four-yard touchdown run that made it 28-17.
The contest, which also featured 26 penalties for 253 yards, stayed that way until a wild fourth quarter.
DiNucci started the period off with a bang, throwing a 28-yard scoring strike to Luke Everett on the first play to make it 35-17 with 11:55 left.
State College wasn’t done yet.
After the team’s exchanged turnovers, Weakland and Misher led a 95-yard march that ended with a wacky play. From the 13, Weakland took off for the end zone and was hit just in front of the goal line. The ball squirted into the back of the end zone where tight end Brett Graham fell on it for a touchdown. A missed two-point conversion made the score 35-23 with 4:53 left.
But, Merhaut once against squashed the Little Lions’ hopes of a comeback.
First, he grabbed Schwab’s onsides kick and raced 47 yards for a touchdown to make it 42-23.
On State College’s next possession, Merhaut picked off a Weakland pass. Three plays later, Slomka capped a 21-carry, 145-yard afternoon, by rumbling 28 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s a big, tough player,” Lintal said of Slomka, who scored the game’s first touchdown from two yards out. “If it was just him, it would be a different story. They literally spread you from sideline to sideline and then they have him they can give it off to. Their quarterback is very efficient with their offense and such a quick release. That makes it tough to defend.”
State College kept fighting to the end. Weakland led an 80-yard march, firing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Drew Flanagan with 39 seconds left. The Little Lions recovered an onsides kick, but their last gasp effort ended with an interception of a Graham pass on a trick play.
“I’m really proud of the way we play,” Lintal said. “We’re not going to give up on anything at anytime. They keep fighting no matter what’s going on.”
When all the numbers were totaled up, State College’s offense racked up 531 yards and 35 first downs against the state’s second-ranked team. The Little Lions ran more than 100 plays in the contest.
“We played well,” said Weakland, who completed 22 of 47 passes for 271 yards. “We left a few plays out there on the field, but they’re a good team. ... I was just glad that we did as well as we did. They’ll probably go far. I’m just so proud of our team.”
Weakland, a senior, also rushed 16 times for 91 yards. He finished the game with a bloodied hand and a more serious injury which has bothered him most of the season.
“Which part of my arm?,” Weakland chuckled when asked whether his right arm was bothering him. “I’m going to have surgery on my wrist at the end of the season and I have a pinched nerve in my shoulder.”
“He’s just a tremendous young man and incredible football player and twice as good a person,” Lintal said of Weakland. “He is a truly a leader of our football team and a kid who just does it the right way. You have no idea what he played through for the entire season. ... Far less tough kids would have packed it in a long time ago.”
Kellin Valentine had the Little Lions’ first score in a five-yard run, following an outstanding edge block from Matt Harpster to the right pylon, which made the score 7-7 in the first half.
DiNucci completed 16 of 28 passes for 228 yards. He also tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to D’ondre Gastion in the first quarter and a 49-yarder to Antonio Battaglia on a screen in the second quarter. Battaglia got a huge block from Joe Scarnecchia, who wiped out two defenders at the line of scrimmage to open the hole. Connor Hardy and Jon Seighman had interceptions against DiNucci, who had thrown just four entering the game.
“We played well, but it was sloppy at times on both sides of the ball,” said Kasperowicz, whose offense racked up 403 total yards and defense allowed 531 yards from the Little Lions. “Ultimately, a win is a win and that’s all that really matters. ... None of them are going to be easy now. It doesn’t have to be pretty. All that matters is it is a win and we’ll take that.”
Kasperowicz said he was impressed by the Little Lions.
“They were a good team, tough, scrappy,” he said. “They were very balanced, they could run it an throw it effectively. They caught us a couple of times in different coverages and made us pay.”
Lintal returns a good chunk of starters from the squad, including Misher (1,539 rushing yards), Graham (41 catches), Valentine, four offensive linemen and eight on defense.
“I’m excited for the future,” Lintal said. “We have a lot of kids with experience coming back. We’ll look for big things next year.”