WHITEMARSH >> Upper Moreland football is built on playing hard, tough and with passion and intensity.
With a team heavy on seniors who take a lot of pride in their style of play and each other, the final 24 minutes of their season were frustrating.
Upper Moreland fell to Academy Park 26-14 in the District 1 Class AAA title game Friday night at Plymouth Whitemarsh. The Knights’ athletes on offense and a fierce defensive effort took over in the second half.
After leading at the half, the Golden Bears could not find a way to stop the Knights’ stable of athletes in the backfield. Academy Park senior Jawan Collins was the catalyst, rushing for 177 yards and three scores, the bulk of it coming after halftime.
Both Collins and tailback Jermaine Wesley were quite adept at slipping tackles and their elusiveness wore down Upper Moreland’s defense. Through the first half, Upper Moreland’s smashmouth style put the clamps on AP but once the Knights started to get loose, the Bears had to try and keep up and they made a few mistakes as a result.
“I think we got a little tired,” Bears coach Adam Beach said. “A lot of their kids went one way. I thought we started to get a half-step slow and their athletes can make plays. We still had chances and then we turned the ball over.”
The entire third quarter was a turning point. After Upper Moreland dominated the first half, the Knights controlled the game in the third quarter, turning a 14-6 halftime deficit into a a 20-14 lead. Collins scored on a six yard run on AP’s first possession then just as the Bears got into the red zone, quarterback Casey Decker was picked off and the Knights turned that into a second touchdown.
Collins and Wesley had breakaway speed, but it was their shiftiness in the backfield that caused the most problems for the Bears.
“We thought we had it when we went in for the first half,” UM senior lineman Connor Dolan said. “They came out and like Coach said, got their athletes loose. We didn’t have much left in the tank at the end of the game and we couldn’t stop their running backs.
“We have a great running back in Rodney Morgan who helped us through the whole season. We had a senior offensive line, I would have loved to have gone farther to play (Archbishop) Wood or Imhotep (Charter) next week but I think it’s still a successful season because every year since our freshman season, we got better and better.”
Facing a defense bent on stopping him, Morgan had a big game, rushing for 181 yards on 35 carries while also playing in the secondary on defense. Decker finished with two picks, but that was as result of the Bears frantically trying to score and the junior was tremendous in the first half, starting 8-of-8 for 90 yards.
AP lineman Jeremy Dembry was a force in the second half, sacking Decker twice and getting into the backfield a number of other times to blow up plays. While Morgan ate up yards, his longest run was 44 yards and AP prevented him from breaking a long scoring run.
Carrying an underdog status into the game, Upper Moreland strode out to receive the opening kickoff like it was meant to win. The Bears marched down the field, staying in line with they had done all season and delievered a quick shot to the Knights.
Rodney Morgan found some space and Decker was decisive in a 63-yard drive that ended with an eight yard Decker TD run. Knowing full well that AP was going to stuff the box and key in on 2,000-yard back Morgan, Decker was ready to be the wrinkle in the offense.
“We had a bunch of guys that were starting since sophomore year and this year was a trademark because we got farther than any year I’ve been here,” Dolan said. “Getting to play in a district championship game, it just didn’t happen. Still, kudos to all my guys because they really fought hard all the way to the end.”
UM opted to squib the kickoff to deny AP’s athletes a chance at it, but the Knights still ripped off a huge return thanks to two laterals. Two plays later, Jermaine Wesley punched it in and AP trailed 7-6 after a failed two-point try with 6:06 left in the quarter.
Those two plays, both runs by Wesley, were the only two plays AP would run in the entire first quarter. UM looked to stall out on third down but a 15-yard flag on the Knights gave them new life. Morgan was bottled up on the second drive, but Decker kept making plays with his legs and arm to keep the Bears moving. Morgan eventually wriggled free enough for a four-yard TD run with 10:02 left in the first half.
Bernardo Paranhos gave the Bears a huge boost when he wrangled down Collins on a 4th-and-8 to get the ball back. The stop was key because while UM did not score on it, the Knights went into a rushed offense and Nick Pagano was able to pick off Collins at midfield with 51 seconds left in the first half.
Aside from Pagano and DeLucas, seniors Christian Leighton and Kevin O’Donnell were standouts on the defensive side on top of blocking for Morgan on offense. The fatigue factor did show when they weren’t able to finish a few second half tackles they were making in the first half, leading to some big gains for the Knights.
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