By Rich Rhoades
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Two years after taking a crack at State College and a District 6-9 Class AAAA title, the DuBois Beavers head to Hollidaysburg Area High School Friday night to take on the Little Lions again.
It’s been awhile since the last mid-November win for the Beavers, who are seeking their first postseason win since 1996. Since then, they’re 0-10 in the playoffs, including last year’s 41-21 loss to Mifflin County in the semifinals.
Like he’s done every year since taking over the Beavers in 2011, getting over the playoff hump is a big deal and this year is no different.
“We talk about it,” Varischetti said of the playoff drought. “Does it have any effect? I don’t think so. We let them know it’s been a long time since DuBois won in the playoffs. We have a chance to be historical. I don’t think it’s a burden or a monkey on our back. It’s just a chance to be a team that breaks that streak.”
The Beavers take an 8-2 record into Friday. After losing back-to-back games to Conneaut Area (36-35) and powerful Cathedral Prep (51-21) — the Ramblers are ranked third in the state in Class AAA — they’ve won six straight games.
They capped off the regular season two weeks ago with a hard-fought 35-31 win over Karns City. The Beavers average 52.9 points per game, ranking them second in the state behind Clairton’s hefty 67.3 ppg. average.
With the scoring numbers also come the big yards as they pile up an average of 562 yards per game. Leading the charge is senior quarterback Gabe French, who’s completed 189 of 260 passes for an impressive 72.7 completion rate with 3,362 yards and 40 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
“The DuBois coaching staff does a great job taking advantage of what the defense gives them,” said Matt Lintal, the Little Lions’ second-year coach who was an assistant in 2012. “They find ways to effectively move the football and put up a lot of points. From an offensive philosophy standpoint, Harrisburg is the closest thing we have seen to DuBois. Harrisburg spread us out and worked to get their skill players in space.
“The key to slowing down DuBois to try to get pressure on the quarterback while only bringing four-man pressures. If you can get pressure on Gabe without sacrificing a zone, you have a chance to win the football game.”
French played in the 35-13 loss to the Little Lions in the 2012 title game and completed 4 of 6 passes for just 11 yards.
“Gabe is really focused on this one,” Varischetti said. “He didn’t have a good performance against them his sophomore season and he’s looking for a chance to redeem himself.”
Since then, French has emerged as one of the most prolific passers in district history. French’s 7,731 yards and 86 touchdown passes rank third in D9 history behind Port Allegany’s Matt Bodamer (10,948 yards, 137 TDs) and Brockway’s Derek Buganza (9,752 yards, 95 TDs).
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to us, seeing the work he’s put in the past few years,” Varischetti said. “He’s come a long way from a sophomore when he was 160 pounds soaking wet. Now he’s 6-3, 220 pounds. Back then, he was timid in the pocket and didn’t want to take any hits and right now he looks for contact and runs the football.”
Case in point was French’s ridiculous performance against Karns City — 27-for-43 with 330 yards and three touchdowns passing while running 30 times for 249 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve opened up the offense and are throwing more downfield than in the past years,” Varischetti said. “He’s stayed in the pocket. When he was a sophomore, if we didn’t have a wide-open downfield pass open, he’d get antsy and try to move around and run. Right now, he’s taken some big hits and delivered deep balls down the field.”
Lintal knows he has a big challenge coming Friday with French and Co.
“Gabe is a heck of a quarterback,” he said. “He has always had a great arm and done a great job distributing the ball within their offense. He’s has played a lot of football games since we saw him the last time.”
French has plenty of weapons around him as six different receivers have 200 or more yards, led by senior Cole Kriner (43 catches, 966 yards, 11 TDs), junior Dante Dawson (46 catches, 862 yards, 12 TDs) and Kevin Foley (32 catches, 644 yards, 7 TDs).
Against Karns City, last year’s leading receiver Bryson Paulinellie returned to the lineup with a cast protecting a healing-up broken wrist. Paulinellie, who has 28 catches for 391 yards and 5 TDs in five games, caught two passes for 15 yards. This week, however, Varischetti said Paulinellie won’t have his hand wrapped like it was against the Gremlins.
Last year, Paulinellie caught 73 passes for 1,250 yards and 15 TDs.
“In an odd way, losing him, as good as he was, might have been the best thing for us,” Varischetti said. “The other guys stepped up and caught a lot of footballs. Dawson, Kriner and Foley all got more balls than they would have. With Bryson back, we have our home run threat back.”
Senior running back Devin Clark, despite French’s huge rushing effort against Karns City, is the team’s top runner with 891 yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with 20 receptions for 201 yards.
State College, meanwhile, has slugged its way through a difficult schedule that’s seen it play and lose to five teams with nine or more wins — unbeaten Bishop McDevitt (11-0, ranked No. 2 by PFN), Martinsburg W.V. (9-1), Central Dauphin (9-2), Central Dauphin East (9-2) and Cumberland Valley (9-2). Three of those losses were by six points or less.
Two weeks ago in their regular-season finale, the Little Lions routed Mifflin County, 47-12, a team DuBois beat 61-38 in Week 1.
“Along with Bishop McDevitt, we have played an extremely difficult Mid Penn Commonwealth schedule as well as Martinsburg, which has won four straight state titles,” Lintal said. “We feel that this rigorous schedule has prepared us for this point in the season. We have competed and had chances to win in the fourth quarter of every game throughout the year. We do feel that we are a better football team than our record shows and we hope to demonstrate this Friday night.”
Varischetti isn’t disagreeing with the misleading record point.
“They’re a typical State College team, very good up front on both sides of the ball, an excellent front seven on defense with a strong running back again. They have that every year,” Varischetti said. “They’re very good. It’s hard to believe they’re 4-6 right now. They’ve lost a number of games by one possession, single-digit games against some good teams.”
The Little Lions are about as balanced as it gets as senior quarterback Johnny Weakland has thrown for 1,247 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Their leading rusher in senior Jordan Misher does the bulk of the work with 1,086 yards and 11 TDs.
Weakland spreads the ball around to his receivers with junior Brett Graham (27 catches, 321 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Kellin Valentine (20 catches, 329 yards, 4 TDs) leading the way.
“We have been most successful when we are balanced,” Lintal said. “When we can stay in positive down and distance situations and keep the defense guessing, we are at our best.”
Again, Varischetti agreed.
“First down is the key defensively,” he said. “We need to get them in long situations and make them throw the football, that’s the key. They’re a very good running team.”
In addition to getting a more healthy Paulinellie back this week, Varischetti said that two-way lineman Robert Zilhaver is ready to go as well. He played a half against Karns City after missing five games.
“It’s the healthiest we’ve been since going into the first game of the year,” Varischetti said.
It all sets up a Friday matchup that Varischetti and his Beavers are looking forward to playing.
“I think our kids are pretty confident this year,” Varischetti said. “We’ve had a good week of practice and a lot of enthusiasm. In the past, we’ve had some kids winding down, thinking about basketball or wrestling but I haven’t seen that this year.
“Our best game is good enough to win,” he said. “We don’t have to do anything special on what we do. If we execute and take care of the football, we’ll score and do what we have to do.”
NOTES: This is the 53rd meeting between teams with State College owning a 34-17-1 advantage. The Little Lions have won the last 12 games and 17 of the last 19 meetings with the Beavers. DuBois’ last win over State was a 14-7 win in 1996. … The Beavers’ last playoff win was a 24-0 win over Hollidaysburg at home in 1996 as well. DuBois has lost to State in the playoffs in 1999 (49-21), 2001 (24-17), 2011 (28-17) and 2012 (35-13). Overall, the Beavers are 4-14 in the playoffs.