Seven lead changes. A combined 11 scores and 775 yards of offense. And the feel, all along, that the winner wouldn't be decided until the final minute or so.

Yeah, it was one for the ages.

La Salle and North Penn, two Southeastern Pennsylvania powerhouses, slugged it out from start to finish in Saturday's PIAA Class AAAA state semifinal, played before an overflow crowd at Plymouth Whitemarsh. It more than lived up to the pregame hype.

No lead was safe, even the one the Explorers took with 2 minutes, 21 seconds remaining. The Knights, on fourth and 9 at their own 27, kept spectators from heading to the exits with a 30-yard pass completion that was first bobbled by Gerard Wendowski.

It took an interception by La Salle's 6-foot-1, 260-pound tackle Ryan Geiger, courtesy of a deflection from end Joe Naji, to finally settle things.

La Salle 38, North Penn 35.

The Explorers, surviving an unexpected shoot-out and thrilling back-and-forth battle, moved a giant step closer to defending their state crown. Next Saturday, 5 p.m. at HersheyPark Stadium, they will take on District 7's North Allegheny - a 35-17 winner Saturday over District 3's Cumberland Valley - for top honors.

The Knights, who won 13 straight after a Week 1 loss to Drew Gordon's squad, made the Catholic League champs earn the trip to Chocolatetown.

"That was a great game," said North Penn senior standout Dom Taggart, fighting back tears. "We lost in the end, but we're going to walk off with our heads held high."

Taggart, hearing from Stony Brook and Temple, carried the load on offense for the District 1 titlists. The 6-1, 210-pound fullback, who doubles as an outside linebacker, rushed 28 times for 138 yards and four touchdowns.

In the fourth quarter, after La Salle had taken a 31-28 advantage on Jamal Abdur-Rahman's third score, Taggart and company answered with a 15-play, 87-yard drive. Power running, left and right, mixed in with a few passes. North Penn's trademark in coach Dick Beck's nine seasons.

"Our kids played hard today on the big stage," Beck said. "I just wish we could have made one more play."

Senior tailback Craig Needhammer, a 1,300-yard rusher who rolled his right ankle in a quarterfinal win over Neshaminy, had only four touches on offense. Taggart and Brandon Mercer, who played opposite Abdur-Rahman's Oak Lane Wildcats in Philly youth football, combined for 201 rushing yards.

The Knights totaled 227 yards on the ground. Cory Ernst, who made great strides at QB after a Week 1 loss to La Salle, hit on 9 of 18 throws for 207 yards, with two interceptions. Taggart and fellow linebacker Ralphie Reeves anchored a defense that was burned by one too many Matt Magarity throws.

Of Abdur-Rahman, who rushed for 142 yards on 21 attempts, Beck said: "He's good, tough, very smooth. And he's great on defense. He's so good on both sides of the ball."

It was Ernst's 30-yard toss across the middle to a wide-open Wendowski that kept North Penn breathing. "A lot of times, they did exactly the opposite of what we thought they were going to do," said the Villanova-bound Abdur-Rahman, also a lockdown cornerback.

Overall, the Knights outgained the Explorers, 434-341. Three North Penn turnovers, including Geiger's clinching pick with 1:14 to go, played a big part in the outcome.

"That's an amazing team we played," Naji said. "If we were going to lose there at the end, I wouldn't have wanted to lose to any other team. You have to respect them, and what they did this year."

Contact staff writer Rick O'Brien at 610-313-8019

or robrien@phillynews.com.