MCDONALD — On just the second play of Friday night’s game, the Greater Latrobe football team forced and recovered a fumble following a South Fayette pass completion, setting the Wildcats up on their own 42-yard line.
However, just four plays later, Greater Latrobe was forced to punt after losing yardage on a third-and-six — which proved to be the recurring story of the Wildcats’ 35-7 road defeat against South Fayette in their final exhibition game before next Friday’s Big East Conference opener.
“I think when we look back on it … we weren’t really behind the sticks,” Greater Latrobe head coach Jason Marucco said. “We were putting ourselves in some manageable third downs, and we just didn’t convert them.”
Greater Latrobe (2-3) managed 10 first downs to South Fayette’s nine. And while Greater Latrobe had zero turnovers, the Wildcats struggled to make key plays on third down when they needed to, as they set up in punt formation eight times.
Meanwhile, South Fayette (4-1) found success offensively both on the ground and in the air, as the Lions scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the first half for a 25-0 lead at the break. South Fayette scored on a safety in the third quarter, and each team found the endzone once in the fourth.
Without starting quarterback Bobby Fetter, who was injured in a Week Two loss at Norwin, junior tight end Corey Boerio once again took command of the Wildcats’ offense. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 93 yards and rushed for another 56 on 11 carries.
“He’s managed the game very well,” Marucco said. “He’s really getting the grasp of our offense now that he’s getting more reps at practice. He’s a great leader and a tough kid, and he’s playing both sides of the ball, too.”
It wasn’t until the fifth change of possession that either team managed a first down. South Fayette sophomore running back Nate Deanes capped a six-play, 51-yard drive to open the game’s scoring with 5:30 remaining in the opening quarter.
Deanes carried the ball for all 51 yards on the drive, including a 30-yard rush into the endzone. He also scored a two-point conversion to put South Fayette ahead, 8-0.
Greater Latrobe went three-and-out on their next drive, but the Wildcats soon made the Lions punt on fourth and long.
“They are a very talented team,” Marucco said of South Fayette. “I thought when they got things going, we were able to get them on a negative play or two ... get a longer down and distance and then get off the field and make them punt.”
After advancing the ball inside South Fayette territory for the first time in the second quarter, Greater Latrobe turned the ball over on downs after losing yardage on a fourth-and-one.
“We just didn’t convert on third downs and stay on the field to either flip the field for defense or give our defense a break,” Marucco added.
South Fayette took over possession on its own 44-yard line and eight plays later faced a fourth-and-12 on Greater Latrobe’s 28-yard line. However, South Fayette senior kicker Justin Caputo drilled a 46-yard field goal to put the Lions up 11-0 with 7:30 left in the half.
After Greater Latrobe punted on the following possession, South Fayette scored on a seven-play, 44-yard drive, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Landon Lutz to Connor Harcarik to make the score 18-0 with less than four minutes to play in the half.
On the next possession, Boerio hit Chase Sickenberger for a 26-yard completion, but the Wildcats later punted on a fourth-and-long near the 50-yard line.
A key drive ensued, as South Fayette’s Lutz hit Logan Yater for a seven-yard completion at the Lions’ 39-yard line. However, the Greater Latrobe defense thought it forced a fumble, and a Wildcat subsequently picked up the ball and carried it all the way to the 10-yard line before being brought down.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the referees concluded that Yater was ruled down before the ball came loose.
Marucco said that play could have shifted the momentum in his team’s favor before half.
“It was 18-0 at that point,” he said. “We would have got the ball on the 10-yard line. Then all of a sudden we hear a whistle and we’re already down at the 10-yard line. That’s a big momentum changer in high school football that was taken away from us.”
Then, Lutz completed three passes in a row, including a 26-yard strike to Ryan Kovatch to put the Lions ahead, 25-0, with 11 seconds remaining in the half.
The Wildcats were set to receive the ball to start the second half, and Marucco lamented that the turnover could have potentially been a 14-point swing.
Instead, South Fayette pulled away in the second half, eventually triggering a running clock. The Wildcats gave up two points when a high snap went into the endzone as they were preparing to punt on fourth-and-16 from their own 23-yard line.
Lutz connected with Kovatch again for an eight-yard touchdown pass a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter to make the score 35-0.
But the Wildcats kept pushing and eventually found their consolation prize — an 11-play, 74-yard drive in which Dominic Flenniken rushed down the sideline for a 20-yard touchdown. Tanner Popella’s kick set the final at 35-7.
“I love how our kids battle all the time,” Marucco said. “I think they show up every week, and we get everything we can possibly get out of them. That’s a really good sign for your football team.”
Flenniken finished with 28 rushing yards, including Greater Latrobe’s only score. Drake Clayton ran for 20 yards on 14 attempts. Sickenberger caught four passes for 71 yards.
However, Lutz and Deanes stole the show. The 6-foot-5 senior quarterback went 15-of-25 for 181 yards passing and three touchdowns, while Deanes finished with 102 yards on 16 carries.
Now, the Wildcats turn their attention to Gateway (3-2) in their Big East Conference opener away from home, 7 p.m. Friday.
“We’ve got to refocus. The exhibition season is over; it gets real now,” Marucco said. “That was our message. We’re in the Big East play. Everything counts for real now. We just need to get better.”
South Fayette 35 Greater Latrobe 7