PORTAGE - Seventh-seeded Northern Cambria knew heading into its District 6 Class A quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Portage that it faced a tough task, one very few teams have been able to accomplish in the past, in trying to stop the Mustangs' rushing attack.
Add the Colts to that very small list that have now accomplished that feat.
NC (now 8-3) held Portage to just 85 yards on the ground, and got the final big play in a game where four of the five touchdowns went for 20-plus yards when Dartagnan Suchar returned an interception 87 yards for a score in the Colts' 20-14 victory at Portage Area Stadium on Friday night.
"I thought our 'D' line has done a much better job in the last three or four weeks they're all buying into working hard," Northern Cambria coach Paul Taranto said of his team's ability to stop Portage's rushing game. "Our defense, hopefully we keep it up and we'll fly to the football and do good things."
The Northern defense snuffed out every counter, dive and misdirection the Mustangs threw at the Colts out of their Wing T offense. The Colts held 1,000-yard rusher Caleb Kephart to just 22 yards on 11 attempts, while only giving up one rush of more than 10 yards (a 12-yard gain by Cody Kephart in the first half).
"Up front was tough for us. They're a lot bigger than we are," Portage coach Gary Gouse said. "They're more experienced and have more kids that played longer than we have. Their up-front people made it tough for us to block them. We were on the block but just couldn't keep the block."
With the score knotted at 14-14 in the fourth quarter, Portage was forced to keep its offense on the field with the ball at the NC 20 on a fourth-and-9. Quarterback Evan Price rolled right and felt immediate pressure before being wrapped up by linebacker Alex Atkins. Atkins had Price by the knees and had him halfway down before the QB released the ball toward the end zone where the throw was short and fell right into the hands on the waiting Suchar at the 13. Suchar then streaked down the left sideline for the game-winner with 7:44 remaining in the contest.
"We had man coverage on the play - [I was thinking] just stay with your guy," Suchar said. "I saw him getting rushed. He threw it downfield and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to take it. I knew my entire team was behind my back to get into the end zone."
"That quarterback [Price] is elusive. It was one of those times where he was trying to do a little too much, but you can't blame a kid for that," Taranto said. "He left that ball go, and I looked and I saw Dartagnan break on it and I knew he had it. I saw he had the sideline. I was just praying to God that none of our kids do something silly and clip nobody because we had him sealed off pretty well. It lucked out for us, and we got a big touchdown."
Neither coach faulted the senior Price for trying to make a play in that situation, but the Mustangs' offense fizzled down the stretch - including coming up 14 yards short on a fake punt at their own 38 on a fourth-and-16 on the ensuing possession.
"He's [Price] a senior that wants to make a play to win the game - I'm not faulting that at all," Gouse said. "That's what we teach them all year - if you can make a play, make it."
The Mustangs (9-2) turned the ball over on downs on their final possession with 5.2 seconds left. Hogan took a knee on his squad's final play to send the Colts into the semifinal round against the winner of tonight's Bishop McCort at Penns Manor matchup.
"We had our chances. Our kids played their guts out," Gouse said. "I thought we performed well and gave them a battle We had our opportunities but, you know, just fell short."
Portage got on the board first when Cody Kephart scooped up a Nate Zachesky fumble and returned it 33 yards to paydirt on Northern Cambria's fourth play of the game.
The Colts answered the call on the ensuing possession as Jeff Hogan and Adam Polites hooked up on a 20-yard TD strike with 5:35 to go in the first quarter.
The two teams traded punts before Cody Kephart had his 12-yard run on first down, followed by a 67-yard Shane Baker scoring reception from Price with 8.9 ticks left.
Hogan capped off an 11-play, 69-yard second-half opening drive that ate nearly six minutes off the clock with a 1-yard plunge. Polites' extra point pulled the game even at 14-14.
Zachesky led all rushers with 72 yards on 24 tries, while Hogan went 7-for-13 for 116 yards. Price completed just three of 15 passes - all three went to Baker - for 114 yards.
"Big plays always scare me," Taranto said. "We're capable of them but we shoot ourselves in the foot when we give up some big plays. It almost came back to beat us tonight."
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Northern Cambria 7 0 7 6 - 20
Portage 14 0 0 0 - 14
P-Ca. Kephart 33 fumble return (Lutz kick), 8:23.
NC-Polites 20 pass from Hogan (Polites kick), 5:35.
P-Baker 67 pass from Price (Lutz kick), 8.9.
NC-Hogan 1 run (Polites kick), 6:10.
NC-Suchar 87 interception return (kick failed), 7:44.
RUSHING: Northern Cambria- Bearer 3-3, Zachesky 24-72, Baker 3-37, Suchar 4-18, Hogan 1-1, TEAM 1-(-1). Portage-Price 7-18, Co. Kephart 12-30, Dividock 3-15, Ca. Kephart 11-22.
PASSING: Northern Cambria-Hogan 7-13-1-116. Portage-Price 3-15-1-114, TEAM 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: Northern Cambria-Polites 4-75, Baker 1-19, Bearer 2-22. Portage-Baker 3-114.
INTERCEPTIONS: Northern Cambria-Suchar. Portage-Baker.
TEAM STATISTICS NC P
First downs 12 7
Rushes-yards 36-130 33-85
Passing (comp.-att.-int.) 7-13-1 3-16-1
Yards passing 116 114
Total yards 246 85
Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 5-30 5-35
Punts-avg. 4-28.5 4-32.5