As usual, the bulk of the work Old Forge accomplished to reach the semifinal round of the state tournament revolved around the big-play legs of running back Brandon Yescavage.
But when it came for starting that quick-strike offense in motion, the Blue Devils went straight to the air. And it immediately took the wind out of Schuylkill Haven’s sails.
Jake Manetti opened the PIAA Class A quarterfinals with a 66-yard touchdown bomb, Yescavage ran for three touchdowns and Old Forge flabbergasted Schuylkill Haven so often in a 35-0 victory, the final 18 minutes were played under the mercy rule.
“It’s like a dream, something you never felt before,” Manetti said. “I remember my sophomore year, winning the district championship. This is that times 20.”
It only seemed as if Schuylkill Haven was chasing Blue Devils down the field about every other play at Blue Mountain High School.
Old Forge scored four of its five touchdowns on plays covering more than 50 yards, and Yescavage’s final touchdown run was a 26-yarder.
But Old Forge’s quick strike attack got off to an unlikely start.
On the game’s first play, Manetti found receiver Joey Gutowski all alone for a 66-yard touchdown bomb to stun the Hurricanes right off the bat.
“They obviously didn’t expect us to come out through the air,” Gutowski said. “We’re a power running team. We came out going for a big play. It was definitely a huge lift, a game-changer, a momentum swing.”
It was something swinging around in Old Forge’s mind, but the Blue Devils didn’t know if they’d pull the trigger so soon on the long-distance pass play until they took the field.
“I saw it (open) in two of the (Schuylkill Haven) games I watched,” Old Forge coach Mike Schuback said. “It was something I wanted to try, it was just a matter of when. Our kids felt very confident in that play, we’ve run it a lot of times before. I said heck, I wanted to try it first play of the game.”
It worked to perfection, and the Hurricanes were suddenly getting blown away.
“We knew if we got off to a quick lead, it’d be tough for a good running team like that to play from behind,” Manetti said. “Joey made a great catch.”
Then Schuylkill Haven spent the rest of the night trying to catch Yescavage.
It wasn’t easy.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior rolled up 191 yards on 13 carries while churning down the sidelines for three long touchdown runs.
He tripped a bit at Schuylkill Haven’s 40-yard line, kept his feet and out-ran the Hurricanes secondary on a 56-yard touchdown sprint that gave Old Forge a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
He broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, then finished his 52-yard touchdown run by dragging a defender the final five yards and into the end zone for a 27-0 Blue Devils lead in the third quarter. And after Bobby Rinaldi broke off a 33-yard burst later in the third quarter, Yescavage polished off the two-play drive with a 26-yard touchdown run.
When Manetti walted into the end zone with a two-point conversion run, Old Forge kicked the mercy rule into effect.
“My coach got on me in the second half,” Yescavage said. “The second half, I started to see more holes open. When you’ve got a great line, you can do anything you want.”
In between his long-distance jaunts, Old Forge returner Bradon Vahey took a punt back 55 yards for another dazzling touchdown to give the Blue Devils a 21-0 halftime lead.
“We’re usually always a big-play team,” Yescavage said.
With another big game in the state semifinals next week.
“It feels great,” Gutowski said, “knowing we’re one of four teams left and we’re one game from the state championship.”