PURCHASE LINE — Saltsburg came into Friday night’s Heritage Conference game against Purchase Line at Barry T. Madill Field riding high. Following a stretch in which they had won two of three games, including an upset win last week over West Shamokin, the Trojans had finally begun to make a climb in the standings and had nearly cemented themselves into a playoff spot in District 6 Class 1A.
That all unraveled as Purchase Line executed the perfect game plan, unleashing non-stop pressure on Saltsburg do-it-all quarterback Josh Gibbons and relying on a trio of its own ball carriers to rack up yards in a 56-22 victory.
Saltsburg entered the game with the third-ranked offense in the area, averaging just under 342 yards per game. The Trojans never came close to that mark on Friday. Gibbons faced constant pressure and was sacked eight times for a loss of 48 yards.
“That was the plan all week, to get pressure on Gibbons,” Purchase Line coach Matt Falisec said. “We had a spy sitting on him, and we ran Cullen (Goncher) and Cameron (Yoder) up the middle on him all night. We sacked him seven or eight times. They did a great job. We were scared of (Gibbons) getting outside, so that was our main effort all week. We wanted to keep him in the pocket.”
The constant pressure had a ripple effect on every facet of the game. The Trojans were held to minus-9 yards rushing, with just three of their five ball carriers gaining positive yardage and none of them managing to surpass 30 yards rushing. The inconsistency running the ball forced the Trojans to pass even more than what would be considered normal for their aerial offensive scheme, and they still didn’t find success there.
“They just brought pressure all night, and they did a good job with it,” Saltsburg coach Mike Leasure said. “They have a big line. They have some linebackers who can run. Give them credit. They played a great game. We weren’t ready tonight.”
Gibbons came into the game as one of the area’s most successful passers, totaling 1,302 yards and 11 touchdowns on a 62 percent completion rate. A multitude of overthrown passes and dropped balls turned that in the other direction on Friday. Gibbons still managed 221 yards and touchdowns on passes of 65, 20 and 62 yards, but he completed just 11 of 25 throws. And where he is usually able to run in times of need, he carried the ball just once for no gain.
“We were just trying to contain him inside the pocket and not let him get outside,” Goncher said. “We had one guy spying him in the middle and another guy blitzing the middle every time, and it seemed like we got some pretty good pressure on him.”
On the flipside, Purchase Line seemed to make the most of all of its offensive opportunities. While the Red Dragons exited the game with zero passing yards, five ball carriers combined to total 458 yards on the ground. Josh Syster led the way, carrying 20 times for 243 yards and scoring on runs of 26, 29 and 19 yards. Goncher followed close behind, rushing for 123 yards and scoring on runs of 3, 1 and 30 yards. Cameron Yoder and Jacob Barnett combined for 86 yards, with Barnett scoring on a 1-yard run and Yoder pounding the ball in for two two-point conversions.
“It feels pretty good,” Goncher said. “But it’s easy whenever the line opens up the holes like they did tonight.”
The scoring started quickly. Purchase Line put the first points on the board with a 26-yard run by Syster on just the fifth play of the game.
Saltsburg answered right back, taking its only lead of the game at 8-6 when Gibbons connected with Dylan Cindric on a 65-yard touchdown pass on the Trojans’ first offensive play of the game.
Purchase Line kept things rolling, re-establishing its lead at 12-8 and raising it to 18-8 as Goncher scored on each of the next two drives. A 20-yard touchdown pass from Gibbons to Nathan Slapinski and a 1-yard run scoring run from Barnett put the Red Dragons’ lead at 26-16 heading into the half.
Neither team managed to score in the third quarter, but things quickly went off the rails for Saltsburg in the final quarter as Purchase Line found running room on seemingly every down.
“In the second half, we wanted to score but we also wanted to eat time off the clock,” Falisec said. “We had a 10-point lead going into halftime, so we wanted to eat time off the clock. But Cullen (Goncher) was pounding the ball up the middle and Josh (Syster) and Cameron (Yoder) were gashing them off tackle. That’s a credit to our offensive line.”
Syster pushed his team’s lead to 34-16 with a 29-yard run. Saltsburg answered on the next drive, shrinking the lead to 34-22 when Gibbons connected with Cindric for a 62-yard scoring pass. Cindric finished the game with six catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
But things quickly got away from Saltsburg. Purchase Line posted 22 unanswered points to put the game well out of reach. Goncher scored on a 30-yard run, Syster ran in from 19 yards and Barnett picked up a Saltsburg fumble and returned it 33 yards for the game’s final score.
“We didn’t prepare well tonight,” Leasure said. “They beat us up front all night. They have a nice team. I’m surprised they’ve only won two games the way they play. They are tough, they are physical, and they are well-coached.”
Purchase Line (2-7) has a Heritage Conference-WestPAC crossover matchup with Ferndale (1-6) next Friday that gives the Red Dragons a chance to end the season on a high note. For a group carrying just three seniors, that opportunity brings importance.
“It feels great,” Goncher said. “We got a win under our belt that we can carry into next week and next year.”
Saltsburg (3-6) moved up in the District 6 Class 1A standings with its good stretch prior to Friday’s loss. The Trojans didn’t fall from grace with the loss, but next Friday’s Heritage Conference-WestPAC crossover tilt with Blacklick Valley (3-6) has become all the more important as Saltsburg now sits on the playoff bubble.
“Next week is a huge week for us,” Leasure said. “It’s a big game. We’re excited to go out and play another game and to have it be a meaningful game. That’s all you can ask for going into the end of October.”