BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. – For all of the game planning, film study, practice and work that goes into a week of playoff football, North Hills’ veteran head football coach Jack McCurry was caught slightly off-guard. But not by the opposing game plan.
“I’ve got six shirts on, and long johns, and I’m still freezing for God sakes,” McCurry said as he stepped outside of the home locker rooms at Chartiers Valley High School.
But the play of North Hills’ defense, and senior Mark DeVita (#2) had to warm the 271-game winner at least a little bit.
DeVita caught five passes for 132 yards and kicked a 24-yard field goal while North Hills (10-1) denied Upper St. Clair (8-3) a tying two-point conversion run with 3:48 left in regulation for a thrilling 16-14 victory in the WPIAL AAAA quarterfinals.
With the victory, North Hills will play Woodland Hills, a 29-22 victor over Mt. Lebanon, next weekend in a WPIAL AAAA semifinal. The winner of that game would then face either Pittsburgh Central Catholic or North Allegheny for the WPIAL championship.
Never one to offer many thoughts after a loss, Upper St. Clair head coach Jim Render issued a one sentence reaction to his team’s performance.
“We played well in the second half,” Render said as he walked toward the visiting locker room.
The second half was much more kind to USC, as junior dual-threat quarterback Dakota Conwell was making run after run after run after pass after run for the red and black.
After USC forced a North Hills’ interception with 6:36 left in the third quarter, Conwell registered runs of 11, 6 and 10 yards (each of which gained first downs) to move the Panthers to the NH 21. Faced with a 3rd-and-5 situation, Conwell eluded pressure, rolled right, then back to his left, and fired a prayer into the end zone for Chris Colditz, who snagged the pass to get USC on the board. A successful two-point pass cut North Hills’ lead to just 16-8.
But USC was lucky to still have a chance in the ball game, as North Hills jumped to a 7-0 lead on a miracle play of its own. The Indians had set up 1st and goal at the USC 9, only to see a center snap sail well over the head of quarterback Taylor Schmidt for a 22-yard loss. Faced with a 4th-and-goal from the 27 yard line, fellow senior Steve Dutkowski hit DeVita for a touchdown to give the red and white a 7-0 lead.
DeVita was able to capitalize on the play because USC’s starting safety, Connor Scott, was injured on the opening play of the game and did not return.
“That’s what we were thinking (to attack the area vacated by Scott),” DeVita said. “Fourth-and-27 is a tough situation. Too close to punt and too far to kick a field goal.”
NH pushed the lead to 13-0 with a Schmidt (17 rush, 83 yards) 10-yard scoring run with 6:10 left in the first half, and DeVita’s field goal as time expired in the first half pushed the advantage to 16-0. And North Hills’ defense, a traditional staple of the red and white’s program, had held USC to just 86 yards of offense on 22 plays, 41 of which came on a Conwell run for USC’s first first down of the game.
“We were kind of lackadaisical,” Conwell admitted. “But our line got hungry in the second half.”
USC’s line helped pave the way for a 139-yard rushing effort in the second half. And Conwell, who was just 2-of-8 passing in the first half, connected on six more passes in the second 24 minutes, including a 7-yard scoring pass to Colditz with 3:48 left in regulation to set up the deciding two-point play.
On the play, Conwell said the play (a quarterback keep out of the single-wing) was designed to go outside, but North Hills’ defense was ready.
“We turned him back in,” McCurry said.
And, as a result, Conwell was stuffed a yard and a half shy of tying the game.
All told, Conwell ran for 155 yards on 27 carries and completed 8-of-21 passes for 90 yards. He finished with more than 1,080 rushing yards and 920 passing yards for his junior season.
Dutkowski completed 10-of-15 passes for 188 yards for North Hills. Backs Josh Neurohr (5 rush, 19 yards) and Mike Seiber (9 rush, 36 yards) helped key an NH ground attack that finished with 115 yards on 32 carries.
Fullback Zach Deitrick added 37 yards on 10 carries for USC.