HOMER CITY — Mike Newhouse took the handoff, lowered his shoulders and powered straight up the middle for a 33-yard gain on Homer-Center’s first play from scrimmage.
It was a sign of things to come for the Wildcats, who never slowed down and raced past Ligonier Valley, 40-22, in a Heritage Conference football game at Memorial Field on Friday night. More importantly, the Wildcats stayed in the running for the conference title.
Newhouse finished with 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Ean Lee added 168 yards and a touchdown, and Homer-Center amassed 460 rushing yards to remain undefeated and set up a showdown with Penns Manor for the Heritage Conference title next week.
With both sitting at 8-0 overall and 7-0 in the conference, Penns Manor and Homer-Center will meet in Homer City next week in the winner-take-all clash for the conference title.
“I was looking at their stats against other teams today, and I thought it’d be nice to get 200 (rushing yards),” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said. “It says a lot about our kids. It really does.”
“I feel like we played very well up front, yes, sir,” senior center Shawn Steffee said. “I knew we had the potential to do it, and it just took a lot of heart tonight and just doing what we were supposed to do and beating guys off the ball. It was just a team effort, I believe.”
Steffee and the Wildcats’ bruising offensive line started creating holes for Newhouse and Lee from the first play and didn’t stop until the last play. The night began with Newhouse’s 33-yard power run and it ended with Lee’s 23-yard touchdown run with 1:02 to play that rounded out the scoring.
Homer-Center averaged 7.8 yards per carry and had 10 running plays that went for 15 yards or more. Five of those long runs came in the first quarter, setting the tone for the night.
In fact, Newhouse cracked the 100-yard mark in the opening quarter, gaining 103 yards on six first-quarter carries.
“To be honest, I don’t really pay attention to it,” Newhouse said of the statistics, “but our O-line, I’ve got to give them credit. They’re a great group of guys. They do what they’re told to do, and it works out for us.”
It’s been working out all season for the Wildcats’ line, which consists of tackles Cody Miller and Lucas Monko, guards Billy Grozanick and Tommy Rura, and Steffee at center. It’s a group that has become one of the most formidable lines in the conference.
Knowing that, Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel appreciated his players’ showing.
“Our kids put forth a tremendous effort,” he said. “Here’s our 165-pound kids, there’s their 265-pound kids. They won that game in December, January, February, March, whenever they were pounding the weight room. Considering the size differential, I couldn’t be prouder of the effort that our kids put forth out there.
“And, yeah, they ran the football on us, and they’ve run the football against everybody. They’ve got an outstanding, big, strong line. They’ve got big, bruising backs, and our kids battled them. That score doesn’t indicate the type of game that this was.”
That’s probably true.
Despite piling up season highs in rushing yards and total yards (506), the Wildcats couldn’t pull away from the pesky Rams until the end.
Ligonier Valley twice got within a touchdown in the second half, but the Rams’ inability to stop the run killed their comeback attempt.
“We were up at the half, but we knew they’d come back and give us their best shot,” Page said. “Fortunately, we were able to take it. It was a great football game.”
Homer-Center quarterback Aaron Berezansky scored three rushing touchdowns in the first half to lead the Wildcats to a 22-7 halftime lead. He scored on a pair of short runs as Homer-Center raced to a 14-0 lead, and he added a 36-yarder on a designed quarterback keeper with 3:17 left in the second quarter to restore the Wildcats’ two-possession lead after Ligonier Valley pulled within 14-7.
Berezansky finished with 91 rushing yards and he was 4 of 9 passing for 46 yards. He threw his first interception of the season in the first quarter.
Though the Rams remained in the game at halftime, they could have been even closer.
Twice in the first quarter, Ligonier drove the ball deep into Homer-Center territory only to see both drives end in turnovers on downs, one at the Wildcats’ 21-yard line and another at the 14.
“Maybe not two, but at least one opportunity, we left some points down there,” Beitel said. “That’s what happens whenever you’re as young and inexperienced as we are. Sometimes you do things like that. … We left some plays on the field, especially in the first half. We go in at halftime, maybe we’re down one, we come out, we get that great first drive in the second half, score and now we’re in a tied ballgame and who knows what happens.”
Having rallied twice this season from double-digit halftime deficits, the Rams were confident in their ability to do it again. And it started out well for them.
The Rams needed just three plays — along with a Homer-Center personal-foul penalty — to cover 53 yards and score on their first possession after halftime.
Alec Bloom, a 6-foot-7 receiver, caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Scott Fennell, and after a successful two-point conversion, the Rams were within 22-15 less than two minutes into the third quarter.
The area leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, Bloom padded his totals with nine catches for 147 yards, and he scored all three of the short-handed Rams’ touchdowns.
He caught touchdown passes of 11, 14 and 17 yards, the last of them pulling Ligonier Valley within 28-22 with 59 seconds to play in the third quarter.
“The kid’s a good player,” Newhouse said. “He went out and got a couple balls, made big plays.”
“I feel like we handled it well,” said 6-2 defensive back Anthony Caruso, who had the unenviable task of covering Bloom. “We ran our regular defense for the first three quarters because we had faith. We didn’t want to treat him different from any other receiver.”
The Rams followed Bloom’s last score by getting a defensive stop inside their own 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, but their ensuing drive stalled near midfield when they failed to convert a fourth-and-1, and Homer-Center scored twice in the final four minutes of the game to make it seem worse than it was.
Newhouse scored his second touchdown, a 1-yard plunge with 3:50 to play, to extend Homer-Center’s lead to 34-22, and Lee’s 23-yard scamper with 1:02 left to put the cherry on a powerful rushing performance.
Newhouse scored his first touchdown on a 2-yard run in the third quarter to push Homer-Center’s lead to 28-15.
Homer-Center held a 506-324 advantage in total yards, and Ligonier Valley committed three turnovers.
Depleted by injuries at the running back position, Ligonier Valley turned to Fennell and the passing game. The Rams were playing without promising freshman and their leading rusher, Collin Smith, who was out with a concussion.
Fennell finished 15 of 35 for 227 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Caruso got his fourth interception of the season, while Lee and Matt McAdoo also intercepted Fennell.
Following a 6-0 start, the Rams have lost two straight games, and their hopes of making the District 6 Class AA playoffs took a big hit. But they haven’t given up yet.
“Who knows? We’ll wait and see,” Beitel said. “We’ve still got two more games to play, and we’ll go from there. … We dropped quickly last week to (No.) 6 (in the district rankings). We’re still going to play the next two games. We’ll go from there.”