Having a great offensive scheme is one thing, but adapting to the personnel on the offense is what separates some of the best offenses.
Heading to a third consecutive WPIAL final, Beaver Falls is the perfect example. Two seasons ago, the Tigers passed for 1,034 yards and rushed for 3,559 yards when quarterback Jaren Brickner was a sophomore. In his junior year, the offense found much more balance as he advanced and developed. The Tigers rushed for 2,348 yards and passed for 2,650 last year. This year, the senior has been able to run just about anything the coaches dictate.
“His mental understanding of the game is one of the best that I have seen since I have been coaching,” Beaver Falls coach Nick Nardone said of Brickner.
Brickner and the Tigers (11-1) will meet a familiar foe Friday at Acrisure Stadium, when they take on Steel Valley (11-0) in the WPIAL Class 2A championship scheduled for 2 p.m.
Beaver Falls topped Steel Valley in the WPIAL semifinals last year, 21-8, before being dethroned by Serra Catholic in the title game.
Steel Valley has only lost that one game to Beaver Falls in the past two seasons and is looking to claim its first title since 2018.
Nardone knows Brickner will be key to the game.
“He has really stepped up a lot the last couple of years,” Nardone said. “Two years ago when we won it, we were a run-heavy offense, so we obviously didn’t throw the ball a ton with him. But, he did a really good job of understanding the defense and checking plays at the line. He’s grown in that aspect a lot of not only understanding fronts, but understanding coverages and knowing when to check us into the correct play. He has really grown mentally.”
Brickner has completed 71 of 141 passes this season for 1,175 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also carried the ball a team-high 97 times for 652 yards with another 14 touchdowns.
“We kind of just watch film, see what the defense is giving us,” Nardone said. “We kind of get into the flow of the game and then our offensive staff does a good job of relaying to me what they think the defense is giving us and what they are taking away. We can make adjustments pretty well. And we do have a good staff that is all on the same page. We have been calling some good games the last couple of weeks.”
Steel Valley has a stud at quarterback as well. Kent State recruit Cruce Brookins has had a dominant season on both sides of the ball. He has completed 35 of 69 passes for 711 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception. He has also carried the ball 107 times for 1,454 yards and 31 touchdowns. He is also a hard-hitting safety who anchors the back end of the defense.
On defense, Brookins has 30 tackles and five interceptions.
“He is definitely our leader,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said. “He’s a winner. He prepares himself like an athlete should. He’s way ahead of his years there. He likes to watch film and prepare. He wants to position himself to be the best. He is always working out hard. He’s the kind of kid that you don’t get all the time. Hopefully he plays well. We need him to play well.”
Brookins is always quick to give his offensive line credit. Braszo also pinpointed Gregory Smith as a standout on the offensive line. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound senior tackle is committed to Miami of Ohio.
“He is one of our big linemen,” Braszo said. “They have a couple big linemen for Beaver Falls. He’s got to step up. It is his time. He needs to have a very good game.”
For Beaver Falls, one of Brickner’s biggest weapons has been senior wide receiver and defensive back Trey Singleton. He has hauled in a team-high 30 catches for 1,022 yards and carried the ball 35 times for 342 yards. He has 20 combined touchdowns.
“He is someone that we are definitely looking to make plays for us on both sides of the ball,” Nardone said.
In last year’s WPIAL title game loss to Serra Catholic, Beaver Falls lost, 35-12. The Tigers had nine turnovers in that game.
“The game will come down to the turnover battle,” Nardone said. “Just kind of seems like over the last two years, whoever can win the turnover battle can win the game. We played a really good Sto-Rox team last week and forced a lot of turnovers and it really helped us win the game. Obviously, last year, we turned the ball over a lot and it cost us.”
For Steel Valley, the message is about staying in the moment.
“I just want my guys to know that they have come a long way,” Braszo said. “The last two years, they have really played well. They’ve only lost one game in these two years. I just want them to go out and have fun and enjoy the moment. Be smart and play hard.”
Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.