ALTOONA, Pa. – In the end, the play design went out the window.
In the end, two guys improvised a little backyard football.
Marvin Harrison Jr. was supposed to run a shallow cross but that was covered. Malik Cooper was supposed to stay in the pocket, but that was too much trouble.
Harrison broke off his pattern. Cooper rolled to his right, and the two juniors combined to produce one of the most memorable plays in the rich history of St. Joseph’s Prep football.
“Hey,” St. Joseph’s Prep coach Tim Roken yelled at Harrison as he threw him the game ball, “that might have been the best catch I’ve ever seen.”
Harrison called his 12-yard snag in the back of the end zone the best of his life. It probably was Cooper’s best pass ever, too, since he’s not normally a quarterback.
Ultimately, the touchdown with 15 seconds on the clock in the fourth quarter forced overtime, and St. Joseph’s Prep emerged with a pulse-pounding 31-24 victory over Pittsburgh Central Catholic in a PIAA Class 6A state semifinal Saturday afternoon at Mansion Park Stadium.
“I knew Marvin was going to catch it,” Cooper said. “I never had a doubt. That’s what he does.”
Cooper, who was nothing short of sensational in place of injured star quarterback Kyle McCord, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 5-yard run on the first possession of overtime, and St. Joseph’s Prep sophomore Keenan Nelson sealed the victory with an interception on Central Catholic’s series in the extra session.
The victory sent St. Joseph’s Prep (11-2) into the Class 6A state final next Saturday night at Hershey against Central Dauphin, which beat Downingtown West, 65-44, Friday night in the other state semifinal.
St. Joseph’s Prep has won two of the last three state titles and made the final game four years in a row.
But the Hawks have never advanced in such dramatic fashion.
“Trust and love,” said Roken, who was overcome with emotion after the game. “This family travels.”
Of Harrison, Roken said, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations.”
Central Catholic (12-2) rallied from a 17-10 deficit and took a 24-17 lead on junior Eddy Tillman’s 19-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in regulation.
Tillman finished with 142 yards on 24 carries for the District 7 champions.
After a penalty on the kickoff, St. Joseph’s took over at its own 18, needing to cover 82 yards and score a touchdown with an extra point to force overtime. Central Catholic fans were on their feet in full roar.
“It was just us being us,” Cooper said. “I knew we could score. We just needed to play our game.”
Cooper, who normally plays wide receiver, was 21-for-24 passing for the game for 258 yards. He was 13-for-14 after halftime.
“He was flat-line there,” Roken said of Cooper’s demeanor. “He was calm, cool, and collected and made some big-time plays.”
Cooper was 5-for-5 passing on the game-tying drive. He started the march with a 15-yard run, hit Harrison (eight catches, 134 yards) on a 17-yard slant, and found Maurice Clark on a 15-yard cross.
St. Joseph’s drove to the 6, but Central Catholic’s defense rose up and pushed the Hawks back to the 12. The Hawks called their final timeout with 25 seconds left, facing a fourth-and-10.
“I knew I had to get open,” Harrison said.
The play design never had a chance to unfold. Cooper was flushed from the pocket, and Harrison shadowed him along the back line of the end zone.
“Scramble drill,” Harrison said. “We practice it every day.”
Cooper’s pass was on the money, but Harrison still needed to make the catch and get a foot down inbounds. He managed both despite pressure from two defenders.
“Amazing catch,” Cooper said. “Just amazing.”
Overtime was almost anti-climatic. Cooper passed 5 yards to Sahmir Hagans, then raced around left end for a touchdown and a 31-24 lead.
Nelson sealed the victory on third-and-9, cradling an interception as St. Joseph’s Prep players leaped for joy while Central Catholic players fell to the turf in dismay.
“We preached stay composed when adversity hits,” Roken said. “When they trust and they love, that’s powerful.”
Central Catholic 3 7 0 14 0 – 24
St. Joseph’s Prep 7 10 7 7 – 31
CC: Jon Opalko 33 FG
SJ: Malik Cooper 37 run (Antonio Chadha kick)
CC: Dom Pieto 40 run (Opalko kick)
SJ: Chadha 26 FG
SJ: Sahmir Hagans 14 run (Chadha kick)
CC: Sharod Lindsey 51 pass from Pieto (Opalko kick)
CC: Eddy Tillman 19 run (Opalko kick)
SJ: Marvin Harrison 12 pass from Cooper (Chadha kick)