KENWOOD — Between a last-second victory last week and a potential showdown for the Heritage Conference title next week, it was almost lost on the undefeated Penns Manor Comets that they still had to get past Purchase Line on Friday night.
All the signs of a trap game were there as Penns Manor slogged through the first half, but the Comets eventually put things together for a 28-15 victory, setting up a de facto Heritage Conference championship game next week against Homer-Center in a matchup of unbeaten teams.
“We were concerned about it,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “They say that they’re ready to play and everything, but we know, we saw it tonight. We didn’t come ready to play. You’ve got to give Purchase Line a lot of credit. They’re a good football team. They played physical with us. I don’t think our kids were ready for that.”
Penns Manor can take the conference title for the second straight year and the third time in four years with a win at Homer-Center next week.
With that looming and a last-minute comeback for a 31-29 victory over previously unbeaten Ligonier Valley last week still fresh in their memories, the Comets’ minds weren’t squarely set on the Red Dragons on Friday. Purchase Line outplayed Penns Manor in the first quarter and took a 7-0 lead on Grant Syster’s 1-yard touchdown run. The teams would have gone into the half tied at 7 were it not for a penalty-aided late scoring drive for Penns Manor.
“It was a big drive,” Purchase Line coach Brandon Overdorff said of the Dragons’ second possession of the game. “We executed some things. We did some things. The bottom line is we’re not going to be afraid of anybody. We’re not going to back down from anybody anymore.”
“We came off of a big win last week and we didn’t have a real good week of practice,” Packer said. “The kids weren’t focused real well and we were really concerned about this game, and we came out flat tonight. We started flat. We did a nice job later on. We started moving the ball a little bit better, but we sure have to play a lot better next week.”
Penns Manor quarterback Lucas Kowalski, who hyperextended his knee early in the fourth quarter last week at Ligonier, returned to start on offense — the coaches saved him on defense, using him for just one series — and scored all four of the Comets’ touchdowns.
He capped a 14-play drive with a 3-yard run midway through the second quarter and gave Penns Manor some separation by spearheading a 50-yard scoring drive in the final 27 seconds of the first half. He drew a late-hit penalty out of bounds after a 10-yard run, hit Nathan Dumm with a 24-yard pass and plunged in for a 1-yard score to put the Comets ahead 14-7 going into the break.
“He didn’t get cleared until Wednesday,” Packer said. “We worked both guys (Kowalski and Clayton Stupic) a little bit, and (Kowalski) felt good. He felt he was ready to go, so we gave him that opportunity, and we’re sure glad he could play tonight, because he made some big plays for us.”
Kowalski finished with a team-high 61 yards on 16 carries and went 5 of 10 passing for 100 yards.
“I kind of think that we did think we were going to come in here and move the ball on them, and that was a problem,” Kowalski said. “We watched film on them. We knew they were a good team. They definitely are a good team, and they came out and just played exceptional.”
“It was a very good football game,” Overdorff said. “I think it was a better football game than what the scoreboard showed. … We took another step forward in building this program with our physicality. (Penns Manor) had to earn what it got. We were physical. We came and played. I’m proud of my kids. It’s never easy to lose, but when you go up against the No. 1 team in District 6, 7-0, the defending (conference) champs, it’s a good benchmark to see where you’re at, and we took a big step forward.”
The Dragons were coming off two straight wins, including a 47-6 thrashing of United last week. Their hopes for an upset faded as the Comets controlled play and Kowalski scored twice more in the second half.
Todd Greene scored Purchase Line’s second touchdown on a 56-yard run in the game’s final minute.
“They knew they were in the ballgame the first half,” Packer said. “They had to pick it up and they did a nice job. Our defense did a nice job overall, except for that last drive. I wasn’t happy with that at all, even though it was mostly the second group.”
While Penns Manor managed just 262 yards of total offense, it held Purchase Line to 166, including 79 yards rushing. Grant Syster, the area’s leading rusher, was held to 37 yards on 16 carries.
The Comets’ stout line will have its hands full with Homer-Center’s bruisers next week.
“We’re going to have to focus this week,” Packer said. “If we don’t, we’ll come out and be flat, and it won’t be a ballgame. We’ll have to play our ‘A’ game next week. … I hope they see now that they have to come to practice and practice hard, practice like you’re going to play.”