SALTSBURG — The Blairsville Bobcats knew the script well and how it ended: The defense struggled and the offense, though talented and capable, couldn’t take care of the ball consistently enough to bail out the defense.
That was the story of Blairsville’s first two games. The Bobcats lost them by a combined score of 109-42. The defense allowed 837
rushing yards, and the offense, thanks in part to six turnovers, couldn’t keep up.
Blairsville flipped that script Friday night at Saltsburg’s Memorial Field and pulled out its first win of the season, defeating the Trojans, 38-26, in a Heritage Conference football game.
Blairsville, which averaged just 80.5 rushing yards per game, gained 232 rushing yards on the Trojans. Saltsburg finished with 339 total yards, including 183 on the ground, which was actually an improvement for the Blairsville defense.
But the biggest flip, or tip, came in takeaways. Saltsburg committed no turnovers in its first two games, but the Trojans turned over five possessions to Blairsville, including four of six fumbles.
“We were all going for the ball … and every time the ball was loose, someone happened to hop on it,” said Blairsville junior Garrett Henigin, who was moved to middle linebacker to inject more upperclassmen leadership into the defense.
Arguably the most damaging turnover was the last, an interception on a tipped pass that otherwise might have resulted in a go-ahead touchdown with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
Trojans running back Dylan Cindric scored on a 3-yard dive to draw Saltsburg within four points, 30-26, with 5:55 remaining. After two first downs, Blairsville’s next possession stalled on a pair of incomplete passes and Saltsburg took over again at its own 25 with 2:35 to go.
Saltsburg quarterback Josh Gibbons completed six passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns to that point in the game, but the Trojans opted to start the drive with a halfback option pass. As Cindric took the handoff and went right, wide receiver Nathan Slapinski got behind the defense in the middle of the field with nothing between him and the end zone.
“We wanted to take a shot there and (Slapinski) was open,” Saltsburg coach Mike Leasure said. “The line got a little bit of pressure. If Dylan would have had a little more time, he probably would have been able to hit that.”
But Cindric’s throw was tipped by lineman Eli Clevenger and fell into the hands of cornerback Josh Koches at the Saltsburg 40.
“Late in the game, a close game, everyone is pushing each other, trying to make sure everyone is doing what their job is,” Clevenger said. “I managed to get a good slant in, get in the backfield … kept myself parallel to make sure (Cindric) didn’t get in or out. Luckily, I just got my (right) hand up and Josh made a great play catching the ball.”
Koches’ 17-yard return set up a five-play drive and a 2-yard dive by freshman tailback Sincere McFarland, his first varsity touchdown and the game-clincher with just 51 seconds to play.
The first 51 seconds of the game looked awfully familiar to Blairsville. Cindric took the handoff on the first play from scrimmage and took advantage of a breakdown in containment on the right side for an 80-yard touchdown run.
With the Blairsville defense already in the hole 80 yards, the offense coughed up its first possession on a fumble by Henigin. The script appeared to be playing itself out again, but Henigin redeemed himself on the next possession with a 65-yard run to the Saltsburg 5. It took four more plays, but Blairsville took the lead on a 5-yard pass from quarterback Devin Burkhart to sophomore tight end Ashton Perfetti and a two-point pass to Koches.
A sliding catch of 12 yards by Perfetti later in the first quarter set up a 50-yard catch-and-run by senior wide receiver Adam Ratkus, and Blairsville led, 14-6. The drive started after Saltsburg running back Gage Kiser lost a fumble at the Blairsville 30.
Saltsburg appeared ready to answer early in the second quarter when Cindric returned a punt into Blairsville territory. But Blairsville stripped the ball again and Clevenger recovered it at the Blairsville 35. Pass completions of 26 yards to Koches and 14 yards to Perfetti helped set up a 4-yard dive by Burkhart.
Burkhart accounted for four Blairsville touchdowns. He completed 8 of 19 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns to go with his rushing score. Burkhart also gained 61 yards rushing.
Burkhart looked to put Blairsville up by one more touchdown just before halftime, but his pass to Perfetti was picked off by Gibbons at the Saltsburg 5 and returned 43 yards. With just 28 seconds to work with, Gibbons completed a 28-yard pass to wide receiver David Stuller, then a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cindric. Cindric leaped over Perfetti to make the catch as time ran out in the half.
Gibbons punctuated the drive by throwing a two-point pass back against his body to Kiser, who slipped his coverage in the back of the end zone, and Saltsburg trailed just 22-14 at halftime despite three turnovers.
Blairsville turned to its running game with the opening possession of the second half, rushing 58 yards in a 63-yard drive and scoring on a 5-yard pass to Henigin. Burkhart went to Henigin again for two points, and Blairsville led, 30-14.
“It was a testament to the way we stuck together tonight,” Blairsville coach Rick Artley said. “That was a rallying cry we had going — sticking together. We picked up Garrett on that first drive. We picked up Devin on the second turnover at the end of the first half. … I can’t say enough about the emotion we played with tonight, and that’s a thing that has been missing.”
Saltsburg came back with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Slapinski later in the third quarter, and Cindric scored his third touchdown on a 3-yard run in the fourth quarter to close Blairsville’s lead to 30-26.
Cindric rushed for 144 yards on nine carries.
Saltsburg dressed 19 players for the game but finished with 17. Lineman Alex Lassick left with a concussion and Kiser injured his arm.