UPPER DUBLIN >> Upper Dublin did not get off to its best start in the first round of the District 1 Class-AAAAA playoffs Friday night against Strath Haven.
The Cardinals trailed by seven after the Panthers’ Zach Newlon scored the game’s first touchdown and Upper Dublin’s offense had yet to pick up a first down after its first two drives.
Then everything changed. The Cardinals defense forced three consecutive turnovers — which were turned into three touchdowns — and they were well on their way to a 34-20 win at Upper Dublin High School.
“You win the turnover battle in any game — no matter what level — you’re in good shape,” Upper Dublin coach Bret Stover said. “They gave us great field position and we took advantage of it. That’s what a good football team has to do.”
Late in the first quarter, Strath Haven’s Newlon fumbled on the Cardinals side of the 50 and Upper Dublin’s Malik Bootman scooped it up.
Two plays later the Cardinals had their first first down and six plays after that quarterback Justin Horn was in the end zone celebrating a 10-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven.
“When you see the defense get a turnover, it gets everybody going,” Horn said. “It really knocks (Strath Haven) down on the other side of the ball. You could see we were getting off the ball much faster than they were on those three possessions and that’s what I give credit to for those touchdowns.”
The Panthers responded by driving the ball to Upper Dublin’s 35-yard line, but turned it over again. On third-and-long, quarterback Evan Atsaves fired a pass over the middle that Max Winebrake deflected and then made a diving play to catch for an interception.
This time it took just five plays for the Cardinals to score. Naiim Huff raced 29 yards for the touchdown that put Upper Dublin ahead, 14-7.
Strath Haven’s ensuing possession lasted just three plays — the third another third-and-long interception. Atsaves threw deep downfield looking for Thomas Foster, but Michael Cottom swarmed in for the diving interception around midfield.
“Some of that is me trying to force the ball down the field,” Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy said. “We had a fumble, then we tried to force a couple balls down the field. To (Upper Dublin’s) credit, they took advantage of it. They deserve some credit for that.”
Horn used his legs to get the Cardinals down to the one-yard line and Huff punched it in for the touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the half to give Upper Dublin a 20-7 lead.
That momentum carried into the second half when Upper Dublin received the kickoff and Lucas Roselli returned it to Strath Haven’s 22-yard line. It took just three plays for Horn to get in the end zone from five yards out to give his side a commanding 27-7 lead.
Later in the third quarter Bootman rushed for a 36-yard touchdown to make it a 34-7 game.
The Panthers scored twice in the fourth quarter — a 31-yard strike from Atsaves to Hunter Mazur and a six-yard run by Newlon — to get to the final score of 34-20.
Upper Dublin will host No. 5 West Chester Henderson in the second round of the playoffs next Friday.
Season comes to a close
Strath Haven finished the season 4-6 overall and seventh in the Central League. They were the No. 13 seed in District 1 Class-AAAAA
“You’re never happy with where we are right now,” Clancy said. “I’m very happy with the kids. I’m really happy with the kids. The season — we have to go back to the drawing board and go from there. I’m very, very happy with the players and the coaching staff. We just have to grow and get better.”
Thomas Foster caught seven passes for 115 yards against Upper Dublin.
Newlon led the rushing attack with 67 yards and two scores and Mekhi Hill added 58 yards.
Horn does it all
Horn led the Cardinals in passing with 84 yards and rushing with 88 yards and two scores.
Upper Dublin corner George Weems had the task of shadowing Foster. Before Weems left the game with the rest of the defensive starters, he held the dynamic Foster to three catches for 59 yards.
“George has been drawing all the tough assignments all year,” Stover said. “I think George will tell you he didn’t play real well in the beginning of the game. He took that a little personally. He came back. He’s a competitor and I think he played a lot better from the first quarter on after giving up one big play.”
Weems also made some big plays in run defense and made a nice grab on offense for 31 yards — holding onto the ball while taking a big hit.
Big day for Winebrake
To go along with his interception, Upper Dublin’s Winebrake brought down Strath Haven’s quarterback twice — once on a third down to force a punt and once on a second down to force a third-and-forever.
Top Photo: Upper Dublin’s Naiim Huff celebrates during the Cardinals’ District 1-5A first round game against Strath Haven on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. (Debby High/For Digital First Media)