PORTAGE — The Homer-Center Wildcats left Portage Area Stadium beaten and battered Friday night. They left no longer undefeated, nor the top team in the district, and they left not knowing whether one of their main workhorse running backs would be available for the playoffs.
Homer-Center got beaten thoroughly, through the air and on the ground, and Portage never trailed as it claimed the top seed in the District 6 Class A playoffs with a 35-19 victory in a non-conference high school football game.
Homer-Center likely fell to second in the district rankings.
“We’re going to have to go back and see what’s going on, regroup,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “It’s not an excuse, though. We lost to the better team tonight, plain and simple.”
Mike Newhouse, one part of Homer-Center’s two-headed monster in the backfield, left after the game’s first series with an apparent left knee injury. His status going forward was unclear Friday night.
The Wildcats appeared to have taken the lead on an Ean Lee 16-yard run on the game’s first possession, but the play was called back by a holding penalty. Quarterback Aaron Berezansky was intercepted on the next play, and Portage marched downfield to score. The Mustangs never trailed after that.
Portage quarterback Michael Bryja completed his first nine passes of the game and finished 11 of 13 for 100 yards and a touchdown. The air attack softened Homer-Center’s rushing defense, and the Mustangs ran for 259 yards in a convincing victory over the Heritage Conference’s most physical — and successful — team this season.
Entering Friday, the Wildcats had allowed 116.4 yards rushing and 12.2 points per game.
“They’re bigger and probably a little bit stronger than us, but we answered the bell tonight,” Portage coach Gary Gouse said. “All the talk all week was the WestPAC, blah, blah, blah, but I think we represented the WestPAC really well tonight, and I’m proud of how our kids played.”
“We felt like we had the early lead, and we had a penalty to get a touchdown called back, and you can’t do those things,” Page said.
“And they killed us with big plays. At times we played solid defense. We didn’t do it nearly enough. We tackled poorly. They have good backs. You can’t play defense the way we did and expect to stop a team that has a lot of good weapons and can make you miss.”
The teams played last season in Homer City and they scrimmaged each other in the 2013 preseason. Portage knew exactly how to go after the previously unbeaten Wildcats.
“I don’t think that league (passes), except Blairsville,” Gouse said of the Heritage Conference. “We saw that in the scrimmage earlier, but we don’t go to win scrimmages. Maybe other teams do, but we don’t. We play all our kids and evaluate kids, but we saw things that, if it continued that way, we could exploit, and that’s what we did.”
“It didn’t (catch us off guard),” Page said of the pass. “That part’s disturbing that they were nine for their first nine, but they executed well. We knew what was coming, but they broke off some routes, ran a couple different combinations and threw us off there, but you’ve got to give their guys credit. They protected him, he threw the ball well, and they caught the ball. It’s a lethal combination.”
Bryja, a junior, was spot-on all night, while Caleb Kephart rushed for 123 yards and Luke Dividock went for 115.
Dividock scored on an 8-yard run to give Portage the lead in the first quarter. Kephart scored on a run and a catch, and Bryja threw and ran for scores. Joe Randazzo scored the Mustangs’ other touchdown.
Lee, Homer-Center’s leading rusher, gained 75 yards on 15 carries to pass the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Newhouse entered the game needing 68 yards to reach 1,000, but he finished with 7 yards on two carries.
“We don’t know yet,” Page said of Newhouse’s status. “It obviously wasn’t good for tonight, but we’re hopeful.”
For the first round of the playoffs next week, the Wildcats will definitely be without starting tight end and defensive end Kolby Skultety, who was ejected from Friday’s game after being called for a flagrant personal foul on a roughing-the-kicker call on a Portage extra-point attempt in the second quarter. He has an automatic one-game suspension.
“It hurts us defensively if we don’t have all our people in there, too,” Page said. “And it’s tough on the kids.”
Matt McAdoo filled in for Newhouse with a 54-yard, two-touchdown performance. His first touchdown pulled the Wildcats within a score, 14-7, in the second quarter. Portage answered with scores late in the first half and early in the second to build a commanding lead.
Anthony Caruso scored the final touchdown for the Wildcats, who ran for 169 yards and gained 230 total.
“McAdoo, Berezansky, Lee running the football did a nice job,” Page said. “Our guys up front never quit. We moved the football on them. It just kind of limits the things you’re going to do when you have a guy go down. We moved the football on them, but we just couldn’t stop them. That ended up being the key.”