Latrobe tops Highlands to enter playoffs on 3-game streak
It was pretty clear early Friday night at Highlands Golden Rams Stadium which team was streaking into the playoffs and which wasn’t.
Backed by AJ Rock’s season-high 207 yards rushing and a stout defensive effort, the Wildcats closed the regular season in convincing fashion with a 39-13 nonconference win over Highlands.
“I really like the way we came out tonight on both sides of the ball,” Latrobe coach Jason Marucco said. “We executed well in some tough conditions.”
It was football weather as a driving rain fell for much of the game. The win marks the Wildcats’ first three-game win streak since 2004 as Latrobe (4-6) heads to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
The loss brings an end to the Rams’ season. Highlands (2-8) misses the postseason for the third straight season, which hasn’t happened since the 1992-95 seasons.
“The weather didn’t have that much of an impact,” Highlands coach Dom Girardi said. “They came out, and they did a great job controlling the line of scrimmage.”
After a sloppy opening series by the Rams that included a personal foul call, the Wildcats offense went to work. Latrobe took advantage of the Rams’ man-to-man coverage defense, and on the second play of the first drive, quarterback Branden Crosby floated a swing pass to slot back Zakharee Williams. Williams sprinted down the Latrobe sideline for a 50-yard touchdown pass to give Latrobe the early lead.
Highlands’ offense sputtered for much of the first half. The Latrobe defensive line was in the face of Highlands senior quarterback Seth Cohen most of the night. East Carolina recruit Trent Holler sacked Cohen for a 7-yard loss on second-and-9. The drive ended when the snap went over punter Johnny Crise’s head. After a mad scramble, the ball rolled out of the back of the end zone, giving the the Wildcats a safety and a 9-0 lead with 2 minutes, 19 seconds left in the first quarter.
“We knew that it was going to be a challenge coming up here, and I like the way we responded,” Marucco said.
Junior running back Rock scored on a 1-yard run to extend Latrobe’s lead 15-0 after the failed extra-point attempt.
Highlands put something together midway through the second quarter, when Cohen spotted Crise at the goal line for a 26-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 15-6 after reserve placekicker Cam Taylor’s failed extra-point attempt. Cohen surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for his career with an 18-yard pass to fellow senior Gabe Booker on the drive.
“It’s crazy,” Cohen said about his accomplishment. “I’m just out here trying to get the typical senior year, but it just didn’t happen.”
Cohen finished 7 of 14 for 100 yards.
“We just had a hard time getting things going offensively,” Girardi said.
The Latrobe offense marched 66 yards in four plays over 41 seconds before Crosby scored on a 7-yard run to bring the score to 22-6 right before the half. The scoring drive was set up by a 54-yard run from Rock. He finished the first half with 131 yards on 14 carries.
“That big run they had at the end of the first half hurt,” Girardi said. “It was tough to come back from that.”
The Highlands defense struggled with the Wildcats’ run-pass-option offense. Latrobe dominated time of possession in the third quarter. The Wildcats pieced together a 12-play, 83-yard drive that was capped off when Crosby found Williams for a 49-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 29-6.
In another mental error, the Highlands kick-return team failed to pounce on the ball, and it was recovered by the Wildcats at the Highlands 26-yard line. Latrobe reached as far as the Rams 7-yard line before Nathan Clair tacked on a 26-yard field goal to run the score up to 32-6 late in the third quarter.
Rock added to the Latrobe lead with an 8-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 39-6. Highlands freshman running back Brock White ignited the Rams offense and scored on a 40-yard run to close the scoring.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to next Friday,” Marucco said.