California Avella

Holly Tonini/For the Observer-Reporter

California’s Jaeden Zuzak runs for a touchdown past the Avella Eagle during the Trojans’ game at Avella. Zuzak leads the WPIAL in rushing yards and scoring. California (4-0) plays at Carmichaels (5-0) Saturday night.

Under normal circumstances, Ron Gallagher, the first-year head football coach at Carmichaels, would have spent last Friday night at California High School scouting the Mikes’ opponent for this week. Carmichaels had last week off because it received a forfeit from Monessen.

“If your team is not playing on a Friday night,” Gallagher said, “you would go to other games, but you can’t do that these days. I would have gone to California last week, but …”

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic and outdoor gathering limits have even impacted the scouting of high school football games.

It was probably for the better that Gallagher, a former defensive coordinator, did not see first-hand California’s 65-22 thumping of Jefferson-Morgan. The Trojans rushed for 585 yards, which included a mind-boggling 439 yards and seven touchdowns on only 19 carries by Trojans running back Jaeden Zuzak.

It was enough to make any defensive-minded coach cringe and then reach for the aspirin bottle.

It is Gallagher’s task this week to devise a game plan to slow the Trojans’ ground attack because Carmichaels (5-0, 5-0) will host California (4-0, 4-0) Saturday night in a contest that should decide the Class A Tri-County South Conference championship. Kickoff is 7 p.m.

The game was moved to Saturday because of the officials shortage in the WPIAL. It is the only game in the WPIAL this weekend that involves two undefeated teams.

“California is a good football team. At the beginning of the season we expected this to be a big game,” Gallagher said.

While they have been watching each other from a distance, neither team has disappointed. California averages 49 points per game, Carmichaels 37.8. The Mikes have allowed only one team to score more than one touchdown against them. The Trojans, meanwhile, have been putting opponents away in the first half.

These high-scoring offenses have attracted the most attention for this game. Stopping, or at least slowing, Zuzak will be imperative for Carmichaels. Zuzak leads the WPIAL in rushing with 1,114 yards and scoring (120 points) in only four games. He averages a whopping – and this is not a misprint – 18.0 yards per carry.

The Trojans, however, are more than just their talented running back. Quarterback Damani Stafford (359 rushing yards) gives the Trojans a dangerous second option.

“Zuzak has good size and he’s fast. That’s a bad combination for defenses. We have to contain him,” Gallagher said. “What I saw on video of their game against Jefferson-Morgan was him running through the defense untouched. That’s when his speed kicks in. We have to make him change direction.

“Their quarterback can move, too. He’s what makes them a deadly two-headed monster.”

Carmichaels has displayed multiple options on offense. The Mikes have their own talented running back in Bailey Jones, who has rushed for 657 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in four games. And quarterback Trenton Carter has passed for 634 yards and seven touchdowns. Michael Stewart has 10 pass receptions and a three-TD game so far, and two other receivers, Jake Smith and Tyler Richmond, average more than 30 yards per catch.

“The ball-control running game has been our forte in the past,” Gallagher said. “This year, we’ve been more balanced. We can throw the football, too. We’re better when we’re balanced. Carter might have surprised some people, but not us. … He can really throw the ball and he has football sense. That’s what makes him unique.

“If we have to hit the big pass, we can do that. If we have to run, we can do that.”

Gallagher says the key to the game will be turnovers. Neither team can afford to give the high-scoring opponent extra possessions.

“We know what we’re in for,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to be a battle. Turnovers will be key. Last week, Jefferson-Morgan had six turnovers and turned the ball over on downs twice inside the red zone. That’s like having eight turnovers against California.”

There are several games tonight with significant playoff implications. The most notable is in the Class 4A Big Eight Conference where Trinity (2-2, 3-2) hosts Belle Vernon (4-1, 4-1). A win by the Hillers could eventually lead to a three-way tie for second place in the conference at season’s end.

McGuffey (4-0, 4-1) can assure itself of at least a share of the Class 2A Century Conference title with a home win over Chartiers-Houston (2-2, 2-3), and undefeated Peters Township (3-0) can gain at least a share of the Class 5A Allegheny Six championship with a win over visiting Bethel Park (0-3, 0-5).

Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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