Big Red remaining confident despite loss

TACKLING — Steubenville’s Jorian Jones tackles Penn Hills’ Richard Martin on Friday. Also shown is Big Red’s Caleb Mitchell. (Photo by Joe Catullo)

STEUBENVILLE — When Big Red football players hit the field inside Harding Stadium, veteran coach Reno Saccoccia expects them to give everything from their toes to their heads.

They did exactly that Friday night, but it just wasn’t enough.

Thanks to a 61-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Hollis Mathis to speedy wide receiver Daequan Hardy with less than three minutes to play, Penn Hills hung a 21-14 defeat on Steubenville in the 2018 season opener.

“Our guys always play hard and I expect that,” Saccoccia said after watching his Big Red fall in Week 1 for the first time since 2001. “I’ll tell you this — I loved the attitude of our guys after we lost. That means we can get better, and we will get better.”

Hardy’s touchdown reception, his second of the game, came less than a minute after Big Red took a 14-13 lead thanks to a 3-yard scoring run by senior tailback Caleb Mitchell. The six-pointer capped an 81-yard drive that began with 6:21 showing on the clock. The big play was a 68-yard Randy Mitchell to Caleb Mitchell pass. Ian Phillips’ kick put the hosts on top momentarily.

Penn Hills, which competes in Class 5A of the WPIAL, began its game-winning drive with 3:09 left to play. After three Mathis incompletions, the Indians were facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 39. A delay of game penalty pushed the ball back to the 34, then Big Red penetrated the neutral zone, placing the pigskin back at the 39.

That’s when Mathis, who gave a verbal commitment to play at Howard University, faded back and found Hardy running behind the Big Red secondary. Mathis then hit Tank Smith for the two-point conversion.

“We played a good team tonight, and I think we’re a good team,” Saccoccia said. “We felt if we could stay even with them heading into the fourth quarter, the advantage would be ours.

“They hit three big bombs on us. When you have a team like Penn Hills, with all the weapons they have, that’s going to happen. We held them and held them and held them. They hit three bombs and got 21 points.”

Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said he was excited for how we competed.

“Steubenville came out and went old school on us, pounding the football between the tackles (Big Red ran the ball 49 times),” he said. “We never stopped fighting.

“The reason we came down here was to play a competitive game in a great environment before a packed house. This place is just awesome.”

The Indians threatened several times during the opening 24 minutes, which ended in a scoreless tie. Big Red’s defense rose up and stopped the guests each time, who also hurt themselves with numerous penalties. Big plays by Caleb Mitchell and Noah Howarth helped keep Penn Hills out of the end zone.

“That always seems to be the case early in the season,” LeDonne said when discussing the missed opportunities. “This should be a second scrimmage for us, but we played it as a game. We only had one scrimmage.

“We made some mental mistakes in the first half, and we’ll need to eliminate those. Hopefully from this week to next week, we’ll be able to improve in those areas.”

Steubenville’s offense mounted a nice drive just before the half, reaching the Penn Hills 17 before time expired.

Saccoccia’s crew, which entered the opener riding a 14-game regular season winning streak, got on the board first when junior Tayveon Crawford took the second half kick, burst up the middle and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown. Phillips’ kick made it 7-0.

The Indians quickly responded, covering 53 yards in eight plays. The touchdown came on a 27-yard pass from Mathis to Hardy. A.J. Collins made it 7-7 with his conversion boot.

After its defense forced a Big Red punt, Penn Hills appeared to score again when Hardy fielded the ball at midfield and motored all the way to the house. The touchdown was nullified by a holding call.

Starting its drive at Big Red’s 25, the Indians needed just one snap to take the lead. The touchdown came on a 25-yard Mathis pass to Dante Cephas. The conversion kick failed.

“Our defense played outstanding, and our offense played good enough to win the game,” Saccoccia said following the first-ever meeting between the schools. “We didn’t do exactly what we should have done, however.

“Starting with me, we didn’t do the little things. We let little things prevent us from winning the game. We’ll get better.”

Offensively, Penn Hills ran the football 17 times for minus 11 yards. Mathis, however, had a huge night, completing 21 of 35 passes for 286 yards and three scores. Hardy and Cephas had four catches each.

Big Red gained 143 yards on the ground and 107 through the air. Crawford finished with 80 yards on 20 trips, while Randy Mitchell, making his first start under center, completed three of his four passes for 106 yards.

“This win definitely will help us as we go forward,” LeDonne said. “We play in a tough conference and, week in and week out, we have to show and be ready to play hard-nose Western Pennsylvania football. This is a great shot in the arm.

“It’s like a college football atmosphere down here. We pulled in between 4:30 and 5 p.m., and the parking lots already were filled up. It’s just an awesome place to play.”

Big Red will look to bounce back when it hosts Morgantown on Friday.

Penn Hills 21, Steubenville 14

Penn Hills 0 0 13 8 — 21

Big Red 0 0 7 7 — 14

BIG RED: Crawford 80 kick return (Phillips kick)

PENN HILLS: Hardy 27 pass from Mathis (Collins kick)

PENN HILLS: Cephas 25 pass from Mathis (kick failed)

BIG RED: C. Mitchell 3 run (Phillips kick)

PENN HILLS: Hardy 61 pass from Mathis (Smith pass from Mathis)

RUSHING: Penn Hills 17-(-11) (Mathis 8-(-6); Smith 5-(-5); Plowden 1-(-1); Boswell 1-(-6); Grimes 1-(-2); Topek 1-9); Big Red 49-143-1 (C. Mitchell 10-26-1; Criss 1-(-10); R. Mitchell 16-42; Crawford 20-80; Tuttle 2-5).

PASSING: Penn Hills 21-35-286-3-0 (all by Mathis); Big Red 4-5-107-0-0 (R. Mitchell 3-4-106; Criss 1-1-1)

RECEIVING: Penn Hills 21-286-3 (Hardy 4-107-2; Martin 3-24; Grimes 3-48; Cephas 4-64-1; Boswell 1-7; Smith 4-23; Plowden 2-13); Big Red 4-107 (C. Mitchell 2-69; Rauch 1-10; Duggan 1-27).

FIRST DOWNS: Penn Hills 15; Big Red 11.

PENALTIES-YARDS: Penn Hills 13-118; Big Red 7-44.

PUNTS: Penn Hills 4-36; Big Red 4-32.

FUMBLES-LOST: Penn Hills 0-0; Big Red 1-0.