High School Sports

State College football embracing underdog role against Pine-Richland

State College’s Cohen Russell and the rest of the Little Lions will take on heavily favored Pine-Richland at 1 p.m. Saturday at Hempfield Area in Greensburg. Pine-Richland is ranked as one of the 25 best teams in the country.
State College’s Cohen Russell and the rest of the Little Lions will take on heavily favored Pine-Richland at 1 p.m. Saturday at Hempfield Area in Greensburg. Pine-Richland is ranked as one of the 25 best teams in the country. Centre Daily Times, file

Tommy Friberg and his State College teammates know they’re the underdog heading into Saturday’s matchup with Pine-Richland, but the Little Lions believe they can pull the upset.

They know anything can happen one week after Governor Mifflin’s shocking win over Harrisburg in the District 3 semifinals. The Cougars were the top-ranked Class 5A team in the state after outscoring their first 11 opponents by an average of 49.9-9.5. They seemed unbeatable with a loaded team that included one of the nation’s top players in five-star recruit Micah Parsons, but Governor Mifflin found a way to beat them.

The Little Lions (10-2) will face a similarly dominant team when they take on Pine-Richland (13-0) in the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at Hempfield Area in Greensburg. The Rams have crushed their competition, outscoring opponents by an average of 49-12.3 and winning every game by at least 20 points. And they’re led by one of the nation’s top players, Phil Jurkovec, a four-star quarterback recruit committed to Notre Dame.

The Little Lions are embracing the opportunity and the underdog role this week.

“Anyone can get knocked down,” Friberg said. “It’s playoffs. We’re ready to go.”

Pine-Richland isn’t just one of the top teams in the state — the Rams are ranked No. 24 in the country in the USA Today Super 25 Computer Rankings and No. 2 in the East region by USA today in rankings that span 13 states.

Their dominant season has been fueled by their high-powered offense.

Jurkovec is completing 75.5 percent of his passes while throwing for more than 3,000 yards. He’s thrown for 33 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he’s rushed for more than 900 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 quarterback is ranked as the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the country by Rivals and 247Sports.

“He’s probably the best quarterback I’ve ever seen at this level,” State College coach Matt Lintal said.

Lintal took note of Jurkovec’s height and athleticism before complimenting his arm. The State College coach said Jurkovec throws deep and short passes with accuracy and possesses a quick release. With Jurkovec burning teams through the air and on the ground, Pine-Richland has scored more than 40 points in every game this season.

Lintal said the Little Lions will need to try to create confusion with their defense while making sure every player does his job against the Rams.

“You don’t want to get into a major shootout with a team that loves being in a shootout,” Lintal said. “You want to be able to make sure that you can keep your defense on the sidelines and keep the chains moving on offense.”

This isn’t the first time the Little Lions have been the underdog this season.

State College faced Harrisburg in October and couldn’t contain Parsons (224 rushing yards; five touchdowns) in a 51-28 loss. The Little Lions were tied 21-21, but they couldn’t match Harrisburg in the high-scoring affair.

They know they’re not expected to win Saturday. But they felt doubted going into their games against Cumberland Valley, Harrisburg and Central Dauphin this season, too.

“During three tough games during the season with CV and Harrisburg and CD, not a lot of people thought we could win that, so we’re used to this,” wide receiver/defensive back Cohen Russell said.

The Little Lions are looking forward to trying to shock Pine-Richland.

“They’re one of the top teams in the country and to get an opportunity at this time of year, where anything can happen, our kids believe in each other,” Lintal said. “We’re going to go out and give everything we have just like preparing for any other game. We want to be in the position to win the game.”

PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals

State College vs. Pine-Richland

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hempfield Area, Greensburg

Players to watch: State College RB Tristen Lyons — State College will need to establish its running game to sustain drives to keep the explosive Pine-Richland off the field Saturday, so the Little Lions will need a productive day from the senior. Lyons has been productive all season, rushing for 949 yards. He’s surpassed the 100-yard mark five times, and he’s coming off rushing for 68 yards on a season-high 23 carries in the team’s win over Delaware Valley; Pine-Richland WR Jason DeFrancisis — DeFrancisis is the No. 1 receiver for the Rams with 61 catches for 1,040 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s packed his 10 touchdowns into four games, and he’s put together his best games in the past two weeks. He hauled in nine passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns against North Allegheny and followed it with seven catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns last week against Central Catholic.

Previous matchup: State College took on a heavily favored Pine-Richland team in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals in 2014, falling 49-29 to the Rams. The Little Lions stuck with Pine-Richland and trailed 21-17 early in the third quarter before the Rams pulled away for the win. Pine-Richland went on to play in the state championship game and fell 49-41 to St. Joseph’s Prep.

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