H.S. FOOTBALL: Indians fall short in upset bid
Handed the keys to Indiana’s offense on his 16th birthday, sophomore quarterback Jacob Zilinskas took his team for a drive. And then another one.
And before the West Mifflin Titans realized what hit them, they were in a 14-point hole against a two-win Indiana team poised to pull off an upset of a top-10 team in the state.
In the end, the upset-minded Indians saw their early lead evaporate and lost, 21-14, to the undefeated Titans in a WPIAL Class AAA non-conference football game at Andy Kuzneski Field on Friday.
No, it wasn’t the desired result for the Indians, who lost their third straight game, but they walked off their home turf feeling like they proved themselves.“We wanted this one just for confidence, not for what it looks like on the season,” senior Darrious Carter said. “If we can beat one of the best teams in the WPIAL, we’re not as bad as everyone thinks we are. We put up a game in the first half. We just didn’t finish.”
After racing to a 14-0 lead in the opening quarter on the strength of Zilinskas’ two touchdown passes, the Indians didn’t score again while West Mifflin slowly chipped away at the deficit on the shoulders of explosive running back Jimmy Wheeler, who carried the ball 39 times for 215 yards and scored two touchdowns. Wheeler entered the game with more than 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season, and he is 216 yards away from his second straight 2,000-yard season.
“He’s definitely got some speed, but running between the tackles, we stopped him,” Carter said. “He’s the real deal, but we can play with the best of them, as we proved tonight.”
The ninth-ranked team in the state in Class AAA, according to the PA Football News, West Mifflin didn’t exactly look like a team that had outscored its six opponents 372-62 and enacted the mercy rule in four of its first six games.
And it had everything to do with Indiana’s defense, despite Wheeler’s impressive stat line. The rest of the Titans’ offense mustered just 80 yards.
“We wanted to get better. We know a win or a loss doesn’t do anything (in terms of the playoff picture),” Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas said. “We knew we had to come out and put a hurting on these guys. We had to take a big step physically, and we did.
“That was some of the best defense we’ve played all year. And I know (Wheeler) had over 200 yards, but we were physical and we put a hurting on them. That’s what we had to do. Now, we have to go into these last two games playing our best football, and I think we’re starting to.”
Making his first varsity start in place of injured starter Sean Thompson, Jacob Zilinskas didn’t get off to a great start. He fumbled on Indiana’s first play from scrimmage less than 10 seconds into the game.
But after Indiana’s defense delivered a stop, Zilinskas atoned for his mistake with a pair of first-quarter touchdown passes.
He connected with Riley Stapleton for a 9-yard pass to cap Indiana’s eight-play, 63-yard drive midway through the first quarter. On Indiana’s next possession, he hit Carter in stride on a slant pattern near midfield, and the senior receiver did the rest with his legs for a 76-yard touchdown as Indiana bolted to a 14-0 lead with 2:37 to play in the first quarter.
“We came out hot,” Carter said. “This is what we wanted to do. We wanted to get up on them, to make them lose their (confidence). We wanted to put them in a hole, and that’s exactly what we did. We just couldn’t stop them on defense.”
Well … not exactly.
The Indians were the first team to keep the high-powered Titans under 300 total yards this season, and they limited West Mifflin to one first down in the first quarter.
“They have an excellent team,” West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. “We knew they have good schemes with what they do, with their option game, a good quarterback, tall receivers and a big line, so we knew we were going to have a tough game coming up here. … I thought we could have played a lot of things better, but I give them credit. I just think they’re a very good football team. They have good players. It was a tough game for us.”
After the opening quarter, Indiana’s offense began to come back to earth.
The Indians gained 138 total yards in the first quarter, more than half of their 272 total for the game. Indiana also had a fruitless 13-play drive that reached the West Mifflin 15-yard line in the second half but didn’t produce any points, and the Indians lost three fumbles.
“We had a couple opportunities to make some plays and we didn’t,” Mark Zilinskas said. “But I couldn’t ask for more of our kids tonight. I’m so proud of what they did tonight. I think they took a huge step.”
As did Zilinskas’ son, Jacob, in his first varsity start at quarterback. He finished 9 of 23 for 176 yards and two touchdowns. He had two of Indiana’s three fumbles.
“He was disappointed that he didn’t make a couple plays,” Mark Zilinskas said. “He’s a competitor, and he wants to make every play. He doesn’t want to make mistakes. But to come in to your first football game, he made some good plays tonight, and overall, my first impression is he did a good job handling himself. You hate to have a sophomore play both ways, but he did. I think he took every rep on defense. I told him I was proud of him after the game.”
The Indians also hurt themselves with penalties, committing six for 50 yards, though the coach didn’t agree with all of them.
“Certainly, the turnovers hurt us,” he said. “We turned the ball over at inopportune times. That was a difference-maker, obviously. And I’m usually the last guy to complain about calls because it’s a part of the game. But poor officiating tonight at critical times made a difference. There were a couple of disappointing calls tonight.”
Wheeler scored his first touchdown on a 4-yard run early in the second quarter to get West Mifflin on the board and cut Indiana’s lead to 14-7.
The Titans scored on their opening drive of the second half but missed the extra point, and Indiana led 14-13 entering the fourth quarter. The Titans trailed until Wheeler’s 26-yard touchdown run and the ensuing two-point conversion with 8:49 to play in the game gave them a 21-14 lead.
Despite falling just short of a major upset, Mark Zilinskas was pleased to see the Indians take a step in the right direction. They have two Greater Allegheny Conference games remaining — against Knoch and Hollidaysburg — and need to win both to have the best shot at the playoffs.
And they’re confident they can get the job done.
“I’m proud of what we did, and our guys are going to build on this,” Mark Zilinskas said. “We’ve got the right mindset, and we’ve got to capitalize on the momentum we built tonight.”
“I feel very confident going into these next two games after how we fought tonight,” Carter said. “I’m very proud of the rest of my team, and if we do the same thing next week, all we have to do is practice our finishing and we’re going to kill these next two teams.”