NORTHERN CAMBRIA - Northern Cambria has had its share of ups and downs while winning three of its first four games this season.
"I feel like we've been on a teeter-totter,'' Colts coach Paul Taranto said after watching his team pull out a heart-stopping 29-26 Heritage Conference victory over Blairsville Friday night at Duffy Daugherty Memorial Stadium.
The roller-coaster ride continued in Friday's game, with Northern (3-1 overall and in the conference) finishing on a marked upswing. In a game in which the lead changed hands three times in the final six minutes, Northern Cambria polished off a methodical 75-yard, 13-play drive with a game-winning 1-yard touchdown bolt off left tackle by senior halfback Nate Zachesky only 25 seconds before time would expire on the clock.
"In the last six minutes, everybody got their money's worth tonight,'' Taranto said. "We've got a bunch of good players, and I thought our kids showed a lot of heart.''
With junior back Dartagnan Suchar and Zachesky fronting the decisive, run-controlled drive, Northern Cambria picked up five first downs en route to the end zone. Zachesky carried seven times for 39 yards and Suchar had four rushes for 21 yards on the drive, which took nearly five minutes to complete.
"The kids did a nice job on that last drive,'' Taranto said. "Earning those first downs helped us manage the clock.''
Northern Cambria overcame deficits of 14-0 and 20-14 to prevail. The Colts converted a blocked punt by senior lineman Josh Platko into their first lead of the night. Taking over at the Blairsville 14, NC used only three plays to score, as senior quarterback Jeff Hogan floated a pass that senior wideout Adam Polites skillfully hauled down in the right corner of the end zone. Polites' conversion kick gave the Colts a 21-20 lead with 6:20 left.
"Josh Platko is one of our senior leaders, and he came through with a big punt block,'' Taranto said.
Even so, Blairsville used the superior athleticism of sophomore quarterback Scott Thompson to quickly regain the lead. Thompson rolled right and hit wideout Colton McMillen with a 57-yard pass. Thompson was roughed on the play, and the penalty yardage gave Blairsville a first down at the NC 7. Thompson raced into the end zone on the very next play, putting Blairsville (2-2 overall and in conference) ahead, 26-21 with 5:01 remaining.
NC's last drive put a damper on what was a solid overall Blairsville effort.
"We just didn't get a stop at the end, when we needed to,'' veteran Blairsville coach Ab Dettore said. "I thought we played a pretty sound football game in the second half, but we've got to learn from this.''
Blairsville looked as if it might run away and hide early. Junior linebacker Luke Ratkus returned an intercepted Hogan pass 25 yards for a first-quarter touchdown, and sophomore back Cameron Livingston ran 15 yards for a second-quarter score.
With the fleet-footed Suchar stepping behind center late in the first half, Northern Cambria used a wildcat formation to move quickly down the field. Senior back Derek Bearer's 27-yard run off the left side capped a four-play, 72-drive that produced NC's first touchdown.
Suchar accounted for the second himself, slipping tackles en route to a 51-yard, second-quarter touchdown run that tied the score, 14-14 at halftime.
Livingston bolted through the middle for a 46-yard score in the third quarter, regaining the lead for Blairsville, 20-14, and setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
"This was a good test for us,'' Taranto said.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Blairsville7 7 6 6 - 26
Northern Cambria0 14 0 15 - 29
B-Ratkus 25 interception return (B. Thompson kick), 3:40.
B-Livingston 15 run (B. Thompson kick), 10:41.
NC-D. Bearer 27 run (Polites kick), 8:48.
NC-Suchar 51 run (Polites kick), 3:43.
B-Livingston 46 run (pass failed), 2:56.
NC-Polites 11 pass from Hogan (Polites kick), 6:20.
B-S. Thompson 7 run (pass failed), 5:01.
NC-Zachesky 1 run (Suchar run), : 20.
RUSHING: Blairsville-Livingston 3-61, S. Thompson 18-7, Robinson 5-11. Northern Cambria-Zachesky 21-108, Suchar 15-106, D. Bearer 4-57, Hogan 3-20.
PASSING: Blairsville-S. Thompson 8-12-2-203. Northern Cambria-Hogan 4-10-1-56, Suchar 1-2-0-31.
RECEIVING: Blairsville-McMillen 4-119, B. Thompson 2-33, Robinson 1-26, Livingston 1-23, Palmer 1-2. Northern Cambria-Polites 2-35, Hogan 1-31, Baker 1-18, Suchar 1-3.
INTERCEPTIONS: Blairsville-Ratkus. Northern Cambria-D. Bearer 2.