RURAL VALLEY — The Blairsville football team picked the perfect night to put it all together with a 38-20 win against West Shamokin to propel themselves into the District 6 Class A playoffs.
The Bobcats put together just the right mix of the run and the pass on offense Friday, held the Wolves passing game in check and created four turnovers on defense and kicker Keith Behanna led the special teams effort with six kicking points, including a field goal at the end of the first half.
“The big thing was, we were able to create the turnovers,” said Blairsville coach Rick Artley. “That was one of the things we really talked about this week was winning the turnover battle.”
The loss would have left the Bobcats out of the playoffs, as they began the night tied for the 12th and the last playoff spot in the district rankings. That probably would have left them without a game to play next weekend because Homer-Center, their next scheduled opponent, won and secured a first-round bye. But a victory bumped Blairsville to as high as ninth and placed the Bobcats firmly in the first round.
“That was our goal,” Artley said. “We preached it. We told them we believe in them and they have to start believing in themselves. Tonight, I think they actually put that together. ... I’m just happy for these guys to have a game next week that actually means something. We didn’t want to be playing Homer if it’s just a leftover game. That was our thing. We wanted to get in the playoffs and make it mean something next week.”
The only thing that remained uncertain immediately after the game was exactly where Blairsville would finish the weekend in the rankings and who it would play next week, with possibilities ranging from Juniata Valley and Williamsburg to even Purchase Line or West Shamokin again, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s Bishop McCort-Cambria Heights game and the status of Bishop Guilfoyle, which entered the weekend on a coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown.
Devon Witmer posted his first 100-yard rushing game with a busy night, gaining 110 yards on 29 carries and scoring twice. Blairsville moved the sticks on the ground six times, including three in the fourth quarter when the Bobcats needed to control the ball. The Bobcats held a big edge in time of possession at 30:07, including 17:20 in the second half.
“(The coaches) were letting me know that there were big holes with cutback lanes,” Witmer said. “Just watch for the cutback lanes and they were right every single time. There were five-foot gaps. (The line) was making huge holes for me to run through. ... It was an all-around great effort, especially by the guys up front.”
Blairsville, which started the season as the Heritage Conference team most likely to throw, transitioned to a rushing team when an injury to quarterback Zak Artley forced him to miss two starts. But after a lackluster return last week, Zak Artley looked much more in command of the offense and completed 10 of 17 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns passes.
“I needed another week of reps,” Zak Artley said. “They did a great job on the line tonight. I had probably the most time I’ve had all season so far. It came together with everybody tonight.”
Witmer’s success running the ball also opened up more play-action pass opportunities and Zak Artley was successful throwing the ball while rolling out.
Not all the touchdown passes belonged to Zak Artley though. Blairsville took the lead late in the second quarter after a major defensive stop anda touchdown lob from an unlikely source.
The Wolves tried to convert a fourth-and-1 from their own 29 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the first half and Dylan Wolfe was brought down short by defensive lineman Isaac Witmer. After a sack by the Wolves’ Jonah Linhart for an eight-yard loss, Blairsville receiver Cage Kinney went in motion to the right on a jet sweep, but he had the option to pass and he took it. Kinney tossed the ball ahead 12 yards to Devon Witmer, who was running parallel to Kinney and turned up field for a 37-yard touchdown reception, stiff arming Wolfe for the last seven yards.
“I was taking that jet and I saw (lineman Troy Goldstrohm and linebacker Ezeck Olinger) coming in,” Kinney said. “I was thinking about running it, but then I just lobbed it and led Devon a little bit. He caught it and took it to the house.”
A two-point pass to Ashton Perfetti gave the Bobcats a 14-7 lead with 2:19 remaining.
Two plays into West Shamokin’s next possession, defensive back Isiah Lawson put a shoulder into Wolfe and popped the ball loose. Isaac Witmer ran the recovered fumble all the way to the Wolves 10. Blairsville was unable to punch in another touchdown, but Behanna came on with 37 seconds remaining to line a 25-yard field goal through the uprights and give the Bobcats a 17-7 lead at halftime.
Blairsville took possession to start the third quarter and executed perhaps its most impressive drive of the season, marching 71 yards on 13 plays and consuming eight minutes and 16 seconds. The drive included four third-down conversions, including a 7-yard touchdown pass to Perfetti.
“We were in trips and I ran a little drag route across the middle,” said Perfetti, who ran the same route on another touchdown pass later in the second half.
West Shamokin seemed down and out at 24-7, but the Wolves quickly answered with running back Elijah Linhart getting his first carries of the game on the next series. The 210-pound running back bulled into the Blairsville line for 10 yards on the first touch, then tore through it for a 42-yard gainer to set up his 1-yard touchdown dive five plays later.
Momentum appeared to be swinging back in West Shamokin’s favor, especially after Owen Stover picked off an Zak Artley pass at the West Shamokin 45 with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. But on the next play, defensive lineman Jacob Faser poked the ball out of the hand of scrambling quarterback Bo Swartz to force a second fumble and then recovered it. Blairsville capitalized, marching 33 yards on eight plays and scoring on a 3-yard toss to Devon Witmer early in the fourth quarter. Another Behanna kick made it 31-14.
The Wolves refused to fold, coming back quickly with a four-pass play, no-huddle drive to cover 65 yards in less than a minute and trailed, 31-20, with 5:45 remaining.
A pass interference call and a personal foul handed Blairsville 30 yards in a 66-yard drive to all but lock up the game for the Bobcats. But Perfetti’s 17-yard touchdown catch with 3:47 remaining didn’t end it. That credit went to Devon Witmer, who picked off a pass intended for Stover at the 3:30 mark. The interception was the second of the quarter, with Lawson pulling in the first midway through the frame.
For the first time this season, Blairsville held an opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The Wolves managed only 83, and Elijah Linhart gained 62 of it on one possession. Just as impressive, Blairsville contained the conference’s top throwing quarterback. Swartz came into the game with conference highs in completions (83), attempts (128), yardage (1,263) and touchdowns (13) with just three interceptions. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. A pair of interceptions were out of character and hurt the Wolves’ comeback effort in the fourth quarter.
Swartz also runs the ball well, but Blairsville put the clamps on his scrambling abilities and held him to negative-16 yards on nine attempts.
Blairsville 38 West Shamokin 20