McKeesport presents challenge on ground

Altoona might be off to a 1-3 start and trying to snap a three-game losing skid, but it’s hard to find much fault with the Mountain Lions defense so far in 2013.

Keyed by junior tackling machine and Division I college prospect Kevin Givens, the Lions rank fifth in the area high school points allowed rankings with 15.0. They’ve only given up eight touchdowns and collected 10 turnover takeaways.

They’ve even held Gateway with its bevy of game-breakers to its season low of 21 points last week.

Tonight, though, offers and new and unique challenge for the Lions as they head to McKeesport to try to unlock the secret of containing the undefeated Tigers’ awesome running game.

Kickoff at Weigle-Schaeffer Memorial Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. for the Foothills Conference tilt.

“As the usual McKeesport team, they probably have seven or eight athletes, like Gateway, who can beat you on any play,” Altoona coach John Franco said. “That makes them very difficult to defend.”

No one’s done a good job of it, so far, at least.

McKeesport only has thrown eight passes all season because they’re running for better than 300 yards per game. They piled up more than 450 yards on the ground in the season-opener against Hempfield and haven’t been held to fewer than 230.

The Tigers run a veer or midline option similar to the style popular in college football in the 1970s. But it just seems to have gotten better with age at McKeesport. Six Tigers already have more than 100 rushing yards this season, with 215-pound fullback Mikell Moore leading the way with 395 and six touchowns on 57 carries. Allen Wright has 186 on just 15 totes, and quarterback David Queen has 178 on 38 attempts.

“The difference is that they’ve got this tremendous fullback and quarterback running it. That makes it more difficult to defend than anything else,” Franco said. “The fullback is a load. You can’t arm-tackle him. He’s bigger than anyone we could put against him other than Kevin. The quarterback does a tremendous job of reading it and knowing when to pull it. He’s a heck of an athlete.”

Franco said the Lions who’ll have the biggest responsibilities when it comes to keeping the Tiger triple-option in check are Givens, fellow linebackers Nick Lytle and Colby Fink and defensive ends Isiah Wansley and Andy Akins.

“You’ve got to take a defensive end or a linebacker and put him on the fullback and take him out. If you don’t do that, you don’t have a chance. Again, that’s easier said than done,” Franco said. “The biggest pressure is having the discipline to do it on every play.”

After a three-year absence, McKeesport is being coached once again by George Smith, an alumnus who was a three-year starter at nose tackle for North Carolina State in the 1960s. He coached the Tigers to a pair of PIAA Class AAAA titles in his initial 28-year stint as head coach.

“For me, it was all about pride,” Smith told the McKeesport Daily News of his reasons for returning to the sidelines. “Sure, I missed it, but I was able to live without it. It was all about pride. I live here, and I want to get this program back where it was.”

Smith didn’t return several messages left on his voicemail by the Mirror, but he did answer a couple of questions via email through McKeesport athletic director Charley Kiss, saying he wasn’t surprised by his team’s 4-0 start although the Tigers were 6-4 in 2012; already this season, McKeesport has upended Woodland Hills, gotten the program its 600th all-time win and gotten Smith his 200th career victory.

“I always have high expectations and demand a lot out of his coaches and the kids,” Smith said through Kiss. “The team has been working together doing different things since last January, so while it may seem like a quick transition, it has been a result of hard work and dedication.”

Despite Altoona’s record, Smith isn’t taking a win for granted tonight. The Tigers edged the Lions 18-14 at Mansion Park last year.

“Altoona is very, very well coached,” Smith said. “I expect a disciplined, fundamentally sound football team to come here.”

Franco was expecting Devin Miller to get the call at quarterback for the second straight game in the place of injured Eli Mencer, although Mencer could see action in a number of roles.

Although the Lions are 1-3, they have been in all three losses at halftime, trailing by six, six and seven. Altoona hasn’t scored in the second half in six quarters, though.

“We haven’t had anybody make a play since game 1, and we need that.” Franco said. “The good part is we’ve played well enough to make every game close and give ourselves a chance to win. But, at the same time, we’re not making any plays, at least on the offensive side, and that’s got to change.”