MONONGAHELA — Call it an upset. Call it a surprise. Call it whatever you want.
For Mark Zilinskas and the Indiana Indians, Friday’s victory was just the completion of a plan to win their first-round WPIAL Class AAA playoff game, and nothing more.
Undaunted by Ringgold’s superior record (7-3) and gaudy statistics, the Indians used a physical defense and steady offense to dispatch the Rams, 28-14, at Joe Montana Stadium, sending the streaking Indians (5-5) into the quarterfinals with a head of steam.
“I know what our kids are capable of,” Zilinskas said. “They were confident coming in here. They knew it was going to be a battle down to the end, and it was.”
The win was the Indians’ third in their past four games, and it sets them up for a date next weekend with the top seed in the 16-team bracket, West Allegheny (10-0), which trounced Hollidaysburg, 38-6, in its opener. Based on the seedings, No. 9 Indiana was the only underdog to win in the Class AAA bracket on Friday.
“I’m not surprised,” said Indiana senior Jordan Casses. “With this team, I feel like we can take on anybody.”
The Indians’ attitude of playing physically and not letting the Rams get their high-powered offense in gear was the difference. With linemen like Cody Squiric and Darrious Carter causing panic in the Ringgold backfield, linebackers like Derek Stapleton and Ryan Watters dishing out big hits and cornerbacks like Casses making game-changing plays, the Indians pushed aside the notion that the Rams were going to ease their way into the quarterfinals.
“We’ve had that title all season,” Casses said of being the underdog. “Nobody expected us to do that well. So to play a great team and come out on top feels great.”
Here’s what shows the kind of night the Indiana defense had: Ringgold quarterback Nico Law, who rushed for 1,116 yards in the regular season, was held to 99 yards on 17 carries — with a long of 81 yards. Take away that breakaway scoring run, which gave the Rams a brief 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and the explosive Law gained 18 yards on 16 carries.
“We weren’t trying to hurt anybody out there, but Nico Law was hurting when he came off the field,” Zilinskas said. “We put a lot of hits on him. It was a matter of our guys doing their jobs and trusting the guys next to them.”
Casses said he wasn’t surprised that Law couldn’t get in gear.
“That’s the way our defense always plays,” he said. “In practice, we do a lot of pursuit drills and get everyone to the ball. So to us, it was just like practice out there.”
Although Law did pass for 172 yards, he managed only four completions of more than 10 yards. He was sacked four times, lost two fumbles and was intercepted once, by Casses, who returned the pick 23 yards for the game-sealing score with 39 seconds left to play.
“It was nice being able to solidify us moving on,” Casses beamed. “I feel like that was a back-breaker. It was a great way to end it.”
Those big plays on defense helped the Indiana offense get good field position all night. The Indians capitalized, with two touchdown runs by DeQuan West and one by quarterback Sean Thompson.
West, who left last week’s win against Hollidaysburg with an ankle injury, had a stellar game, with 154 yards and the two touchdowns before injuring his shoulder in the fourth quarter. During the week, Zilinskas said he questioned West’s ability to help the Indians because of his ailing ankle, but the senior stepped up his play in the biggest game of his career.
“I tried to impress upon him the fact that if he wasn’t ready, that we were moving on,” Zilinskas said. “But we needed him tonight, and he ran the ball hard. Overall, I thought he had a great game for us. He made some plays that really made the difference.”
West’s second touchdown run, from 3 yards, gave Indiana a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Rams answered, though, and made it a one-score game on Chacar Berry’s 3-yard run with 5:08 left on the clock.
Indiana held the ball for the next four minutes before turning it over on downs with 50 seconds left, giving the Rams a last gasp 87 yards from the end zone and without a timeout to help themselves. But on second down, Casses stepped in the line of a pass to Alan Pritchett and raced for the game-clinching score, sending the Indiana faithful into celebration.
Zilinskas thought the touchdown was a fitting end to the defense’s stellar showing.
“They were crazed animals tonight,” he said. “It didn’t matter if we were up by 50 or down by 50, they were just going to go out there and play hard like that all night. I’m just so proud of how well they responded.”
It was enough to make one wonder what the Indians would be capable of doing if they weren’t weighed down by their mediocre record.
Zilinskas could lament the setbacks that hindered the Indians in the middle of the season, when they lost to Highlands, Greensburg Salem and West Mifflin, each by seven points. But he isn’t doing that. Instead, he is looking ahead as his team confidently moves on.
“The bottom line is we’re playing our best football right now,” Zilinskas said. “Those games don’t matter at this point. What really matters is us beating Ringgold tonight. They brought an attitude tonight, and that was the difference in the football game. … One thing about us is our season has been up and down. We’ve had a lot of adversity. The one positive thing about the end of the season is that you’ve already been there and experienced a lot. They knew what they had to do, and that’s what they did.”