SALTSBURG — The much-talked about losing streak is over.
The Homer-Center Wildcats are back on the winning side.
The Wildcats went to Saltsburg on Friday night dragging a two-game losing streak with them. Yes, a two-game losing streak is a pretty big deal when you’ve enjoyed the type of success Homer-Center has had in recent seasons.
It’s over now. Homer-Center turned big plays in the passing game on offense in the first half, turned loose its defense in the second and beat Saltsburg, 43-27, in what started as a shootout and ended with the Wildcats grinding out a win.
“I’ll tell you what,” Homer-Center coach Greg Page said, “in a program like ours, you lose a couple in a row and everybody is down and everybody is questioning themselves, and it was two games. I guess that means you should feel good about your program when you have those kind of reflections. All you can do is keep working. You can see it in the kids; They want to break that losing streak and get back on the winning track.”
Homer-Center hadn’t lost two straight games since the 2015 season. The Wildcats entered this season having won 24 of their previous 28 games with a district championship and an appearance in the state championship game to their credit. They also entered this season with a largely inexperienced team and went into Friday night with a 3-3 record.
“It’s great to get off the losing streak,” senior tight end/linebacker Jayke Saiani said. “You never want to be on that, and to get a win tonight means a lot to us.”
Saltsburg, though, gave the Wildcats all they could handle, same as they have done with every team they have played this season, except one. The Trojans, coming off a win over a United team that handed Homer-Center its first of the two straight losses, added to the anxiety on the Wildcats’ side by opening the game with a 60-yard drive for a touchdown and then later going 95 yards for a 14-7 lead.
The first half developed into a quarterback duel. Saltsburg junior and three-year starter Josh Gibbons threw a touchdown pass to Alex Lassick on the opening drive, broke loose on a 55-yard run for a 14-7 lead and hit Dylan Cindric for 61 yards for a 21-13 advantage.
Homer-Center countered with sophomore and second-year starter Ben Schmidt. He hooked up with Travis Mock for 44 yards to set up the Wildcats’ first score, a 1-yard plunge by Trevor Mlakar, an offensive lineman who lines up in the backfield in short-yardage situations. Then Schmidt hit Cobe Daugherty for a 45-yard score.
On the Wildcats’ next possession, he found Saiani on a play that went for 39 yards to the Saltsburg 15. Logan Williams scored from there on the next play, capping a frantic 17 minutes in which 40 points were scored, including four touchdowns in the span of 11 plays.
After all that, Saltsburg held a 21-19 lead with seven minutes to go in the second quarter.
It looked like that might be the halftime score when Homer-Center took over with only 1:37 left in the half. That’s when the Wildcats turned to some trickery. On first down from the Homer-Center 33, Schmidt pitched to Daugherty, a split end who lofted a pass for Saiani on a play that netted 42 yards to the Saltsburg 25 and an extra 15 to the 10 for a penalty. Saiani scored on a 10-yard pass on third-and-goal and Justin Walbeck tacked on the two-point run for a 27-21 lead.
“We thought we had to stop the run, that was the big concern,” Saltsburg coach Mike Leasure said. “They hit a lot of play-action passes, and that was the difference tonight. Early on in the first half they hit some play action, and that was the difference. Homer-Center did a great job of spreading the ball around and made plays when they needed to.”
Schmidt finished the first half 7-for-8 with seven straight completions for 165 yards. Daugherty and Saiani had the other big play that gave the Wildcats 202 passing yards at halftime.
Gibbons was 10-for-14 for a 176 yards and rushed for 73 yards on nine carries in the first half, but he did throw two interceptions.
The second half was a different story. Homer-Center’s Logan Williams bolted 75 yards on the first play from scrimmage for a 35-21 lead, fueling a ground game that went on rush for 293 yards in the second half. Homer-Center finished with 537 total yards, led by Schmidt’s 9-for-12 passing for 202 yards and 108 rushing yards on 11 carries, giving him 303 total yards. Williams rushed for 160 yards on 24 carries.
“We’re primarily a running team,” Schmidt said, “but we like to throw it every once in a while, and we had pretty good success with it tonight.”
The Homer-Center defense took over in the second half, allowing only 94 yards and three first downs. Cindric, the Trojans’ workhorse running back, finished with 5 yards on nine carries. He did have eight receptions for a 182 yards, but only two for 57 in the second half, which accounted for most of Saltsburg’s 79 passing yards.
“We fixed some things up in the locker room and came out and shut them down in the second half,” Saiani said.
“We tried to go with a little more of a nickle look because we knew if we sustained the lead they would have to throw the ball,” Page said. “And we tried to get some pressure with a couple fresh kids. But Gibbons does a heck of job, and he’s not a one-trick pony. He’s see his receivers, in the flat, on deep outs, and he’s so slippery. I was pleased we got a couple sacks on him on the last drive.”
Trailing 35-21, Saltsburg kept it interesting when Gino Bartolini made a perfect read on a Schmidt pass, snagged it in stride and bolted 52 yards for a touchdown. That made it 35-27 with a little over four minutes left in the third quarter.
Saltsburg’s chance to make it more interesting came up about a half-inch short when Homer-Center stopped Gibbons a keeper on fourth-and-1 at the 14 early in the fourth quarter.
“That was huge for them,” Leasure said. “Fourth down, going in to tie the game possibly, and we try the QB sneak and came up a half-inch short. That took the momentum out of us.”
The Wildcats took over and traveled 86 yards on nine plays, with Schmidt breaking a 34-yard run and hitting Daugherty for 28 before scoring from the 1 for a 43-27 lead.
For good measure, Homer-Center turned Saltsburg away on one more fourth-down opportunity with 4:26 to go and then ran out the clock.
“I give credit to Saltsburg. I knew they would battle,” Page said. “They beat United last week over there and United beat us the week before. I told the kids the position we’re in this year, everybody is battle, it’s going to be a battle every week. We’re still trying to learn and grow, and I think we did a little bit of that tonight.”