McMURRAY – Sometimes it’s not always dialed up the way it might be drawn up.
For the Belle Vernon football team and coach Matt Humbert, the final nine minutes of Friday night’s Class 4A semifinal game might have fallen under that description.
After a running-into-the-snapper penalty was called on South Fayette on a missed 54-yard field goal by Belle Vernon, the Leopards had another chance. Humbert decided put it into his offense’s hands.
On fourth-and-five in the middle of the fourth quarter, Leopards quarterback Jared Hartman looked at Nolan Labuda and chucked a deep pass into the middle of the field. With eye-black in the shape of crosses under both eyes, Belle Vernon receiver Andrew Pacak needed all the faith he could muster to haul down this pass.
Tugging with a South Fayette defender on the jump ball, Pacak secured it while going to the ground. In the next minute, Belle Vernon scored two touchdowns – a four-yard run by Larry Callaway to take its first lead and a 23-yard fumble return on the ensuing kickoff by Hunter Ruokonen – as third-seeded Belle Vernon defeated second-seeded South Fayette, 41-30, in a back-and-forth game Friday night at Peters Township High School.
“There is never a way if I throw Andrew out there that he won’t be successful,” Humbert said. “He is a defensive-oriented player. He is an underrated receiver. We don’t use him too much on offense. But sometimes it’s not dialed up the way you expect it.”
The win sends Belle Vernon (10-1) to the championship against conference rival Thomas Jefferson (12-0) next Saturday at Heinz Field. It is the first time the Leopards have advanced to a title game since 1999. They had lost in the semifinals the past two seasons to the eventual WPIAL champion.
The loss ends the season for South Fayette (10-2), which was trying to defend its WPIAL championship. The Lions beat Belle Vernon in last year’s semifinals.
“The mistakes hurt us,” said South Fayette coach Joe Rossi. “We couldn’t get any stops. That’s what it came down to. We played great defense early but momentum is tough to overcome sometimes.”
Shifting all momentum to Belle Vernon was a small sequence of fourth-quarter plays.
Leading 30-28, the Lions fumbled a shotgun snap and shanked a punt that gave the Belle Vernon the ball at the South Fayette 37 yard-line with 9:06 left. After being stopped on three straight plays, standout kicker Cam Guess was short on a 54-yard field goal. South Fayette was called for running into the snapper, a five-yard penalty that changed Humbert’s decision to go for it on fourth down.
That’s when Hartman found Pacak for a 24-yard heave that fluttered into the cold, night air and was caught for the first down.
“I wasn’t the main guy on that play,” Pacak said. “The first read was covered and my quarterback had faith in me. Something me and my friends always say is that I’m a go-getter. I was going to get that ball by any means.”
Pacak first shifted the momentum into Belle Vernon’s favor at the end of the first half. Taking a jet sweep, Pacak pulled up and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Ruokonen to trim the Leopards’ deficit to 17-14 with 13 seconds left in the second quarter.
A play that was vital for Belle Vernon with South Fayette getting the ball to start the second half.
“We have practiced it for nine weeks,” Humbert said of the jet pass. “You need a big chunk play. That was the best opportunity to bait them. We’ve been prepping that one, so it was nice to see it work.”
Callaway churned out 120 yards on 23 carries for Belle Vernon. Hartman was an efficient 15-for-18 with 185 yards.
Outside of the game-changing fumble in the fourth quarter, the South Fayette offense proved to be hard to slow down. Running back Andrew Franklin ripped off 187 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Ryan McGuire and Charley Rossi combined for seven receptions and 228 yards.
The Lions had four different two-possession leads throughout the game.
“Most of the points they’ve allowed have been in the second half,” Humbert said. “We are a second-half football team. It felt like this game came full circle with the semifinal losses. Our backs were against the wall. Sometimes it’s such a momentum-based game.”