HOLLIDAYSBURG — With one small step of his 6-foot-5 frame, Darrious Carter saved the day for the Indiana Indians.
And with that, the Indians took a giant leap into the WPIAL football playoffs.
Carter, Indiana’s standout senior defensive lineman, snared an interception early in the third quarter to steal the momentum away from Hollidaysburg, and the Indians went on to beat the host Tigers 41-24 on Friday to earn a playoff spot with a resounding win.
The big play came with the Tigers leading 17-14 and Indiana trying to salvage its playoff hopes after coughing up a 14-point first-quarter lead.
“Hollidaysburg had the momentum, but we needed a leader to step up and make a play, and Darrious made a huge play right there,” said Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas.
Carter returned the interception 28 yards to the Hollidaysburg 2-yard line. On the next play, quarterback Sean Thompson scored for the third time to put Indiana ahead. Although the Tigers answered with a touchdown soon after, Indiana took its newfound momentum and scored the game’s final 21 points to run away with the win — and a playoff spot.
The Indians (4-5) entered the game knowing they had to win in order to clinch a playoff spot out of the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference. They left the field after the win feeling as if they are one of the hottest teams left standing.
“This feels good,” Carter said with a smile. “All the guys stepped up tonight. We played like a team tonight, and this is what we can do when we play like a team.”
Thompson, one of the team’s senior leaders, rushed for three touchdowns and passed for two more, to Carter (20 yards) and Riley Stapleton (52), as part of his best night as a starter. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 160 yards without an interception.
“We made plays when we had to,” Zilinskas said. “We’ve got five or six guys who stepped up tonight. I’m real happy for them.”
Indiana will find out its playoff opponent Monday when the WPIAL announces the pairings. The Indians are the fourth seed from the Greater Allegheny Conference and will likely play a No. 2 or No. 3 seed from one of the other two conferences. That list includes, but is not limited to, West Mifflin (8-1), Ringgold (7-2), Central Valley (8-1) and New Castle (7-2).
“It doesn’t matter,” Zilinskas said. “I’m just glad to be playing somewhere. We’ve just got to get back to work and work our tails off to be ready for whoever we play.”
For a time Friday, Zilinskas was probably wondering if he was coaching the final game of the season. Indiana had opened up a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, on two scoring runs from Thompson, but then the Tigers roared back with two touchdowns and a field goal to enter the break up by three.
Several Indiana miscues led to the Tigers’ quick rally. First, Thompson fumbled the ball away at the Indiana 21-yard line that set up Hollidaysburg’s first score, then the defense got mixed up in pass coverage and the Tigers’ Daniel Baker was able to haul in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Josh Bickley that knotted the score.
On that drive, Indiana’s DeQuan West suffered a game-ending ankle injury, which was magnified after Indiana’s next possession stalled and it had to punt. With West sidelined, Stapleton had to punt, and his kick traveled only 8 yards and the Tigers had the ball at the Indiana 35-yard line. Five plays later, Eric Miller drilled a 37-yard field goal to put Hollidaysburg ahead.
“That was just jaw-dropping,” Zilinskas said. “We had been running up and down the field and then we gave them a quick seven and started giving them good field position. We gave them 17 points and they only needed to make a couple plays. So they got some momentum there.”
But thanks to Carter, that poor second quarter turned out to be the only real negative to the Indians’ night.
On Hollidaysburg’s first play of the third quarter, Bickley tried to throw a screen pass but forgot about the rangy Carter and didn’t toss the ball high enough. Carter snared it and dashed to the Tigers’ 2-yard line before being tackled, setting up Thompson’s third touchdown.
“I knew when (Bickley) was backing up that he was going to throw,” Carter explained, “but I didn’t know where he was going to throw it. I didn’t turn around and look for a running back, but he just plopped it up there over my head and I went up and got it.”
From there, the game pretty much belonged to the Indians. Hollidaysburg did score one more time, but Indiana answered with two of its own to hold a close 10-point lead with less than a minute to go.
That’s when Indiana’s do-it-all senior, Ian Scott, put the exclamation point on the win — and the playoff berth — when he intercepted a pass and slashed his way 31 yards to the end zone for a touchdown that put Indiana up by 17.
For Scott, who rushed for 94 yards on just nine carries, the pick-six was the perfect way to end the night. It was also the perfect capper to a fine three-week stretch for Indiana, which seems to be playing its best football at the most important time. And now that the Indians have earned their way into the playoffs, a new season has started with high hopes.
“I’m very happy for our kids now that they have the opportunity to keep playing for one more week,” Zilinskas said, “and we’re going to work hard to make it longer than that.”