UPPER DUBLIN >> It was as thorough a first half as Upper Dublin High has played all season.
And the Cardinals saved it for the right time.
The Cardinals rolled up 28 unanswered first-half points, then coasted to a 48-14 victory over Council Rock North Friday night in the opening round of the PIAA District One Class AAAA football playoffs, the first district-playoff victory in the program’s history.
The sixth-seeded Cardinals, for the first time, have a quarterfinal playoff game to prepare for, and they’ll meet No. 3 seed Bayard Rustin, a 47-13 winner over Conestoga, next weekend.
John Lee ran for 173 yards, Kaleif Lee ran for four touchdowns and Stacey Gardner ran for a touchdown on a fake punt as the Cardinals shocked everyone by the dominance of the win — maybe even themselves.
“Wow, what a feeling,’ said Cardinals head coach Bret Stover. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of our kids and our coaching staff.
“The kids just played a great game, and our staff put in a terrific game plan.’
That plan included attempting to rope in North’s standout junior quarterback Brandon McIlwain, the Division One signal-caller to-be, and the Cardinals did about as well as possible, limiting the 1,000-yard passer and runner to just 123 yards through the air and 38 more on the ground.
“We knew we had to take care of him,’ Stover said. “With it being as windy as it was on the field, we wanted to contain his running and make him beat us by passing.’
Meanwhile, the Indians could do little to slow down the Cardinals run game, which exploded for 426 yards.
“That’s a very well-coached team over there,’ said North head coach Adam Collachi, nodding toward the Cardinals. “They deserved to win the game.
“We’ve played some teams lately that exposed our weaknesses, and (Upper Dublin’s) coaches saw them and took advantage of them.’
Upper Dublin got it going early, turning a Thomas Henning interception into an early touchdown, but only after quarterback Ryan Stover gained a key first down on a fourth-down, 10-yard scramble to the Indians 2-yard line.
Kaleif Lee banged it in from there and the die was cast.
After a North three-and-out, UD went right back to work.
John Lee gained a total of 43 yards on back-to-back carries, then Kaleif Lee ran 16 yards for the game’s second score, with just 3:09 left in the first quarter.
“We came in prepared, and we had put in some nice checks,’ John Lee said. “From there, Ryan just kept making good calls.’
“We didn’t really come in wanting to run the ball,’ Coach Stover said, “but Ryan kept making checks at the line the whole game, and our run game went crazy.
“And it was a night we needed it.’
After the Cardinals touchdown, the Indians put together their deepest penetration of the half, driving from their own 35 to the Cardinals 5-yard line.
But McIlwain was pulled down by Gardner for a four-yard loss, and two snaps later, on fourth down, Indians placekicker James McMullen missed a 22-yard field goal attempt.
Taking over at their own 20, the Cardinals made it 21-0 with an eight-play, totally-on-the-ground drive.
Once again, it was John Lee who led the way, gaining 61 yards on four carries. Stover sneaked in from a yard away to make it, 21-0, with 8:25 left in the half.
The Indians came right back, getting as far as the Cardinals 24-yard line, but ultimately were forced to punt.
Following that punt and starting at their own 8-yard line, the Cardinals moved the ball as far as their own 44. The drive stalled, and facing fourth down, and in punt formation, the snap went directly to up man Gardner, who took off, running for 56 yards and a 28-0 Upper Dublin lead with just over 3:00 left in the half.
“That was all Stacey,’ Coach Stover said. “It was a sight adjustment, and as we tell them, if you do it, you better make it.’
“They took it to us in all three phases of the game,’ Collachi said. “That fake punt was the straw that broke the camel’s back.’
The Cardinals had a chance to invoke the mercy rule when Kaleif Lee streaked for an 86-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage of the second half. But the extra-point attempt was blocked.
That didn’t slow the Cardinals roll, however, although North got on the board when Collin Campanelli jumped on a Stover fumble at the Cardinals 41-yard line.
The Indians scored five plays later on the first of McIlwain’s two rushing touchdowns.
The Cardinals, however, answered that score with Kaleif Lee’s fourth touchdown, a 3-yarder with 2:42 left in the quarter.
A little over a quarter later, the Cardinals made it official, and the celebration was at full boil.
“It’s great,’ John Lee said. “My senior year, what could be better than that?
“I don’t even have words for it.’
EXTRA POINTS >> In the game’s closing moments, Upper Dublin running back Nick Sonetto was tackled and was unable to get back up. He was ultimately carted off the field on a stretcher. Coach Stover, however, said that action was mostly precautionary. “He was alert and moving, he seemed to be OK,’ the coach said.