WILKINSBURG – Imani Christian Academy quarterback Tawan Wesley started the game Saturday against California completing his first eight passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
The Saints led 20-8 halfway through the second quarter, and it seemed as if the projected shootout was leaning Imani’s way.
California head coach Darrin Dillow then switched to a two-safety defense, neutralizing Imani’s prolific passing attack. The Trojans held Imani to a measly 8-for-23 passing the rest of the game while intercepting four passes and allowing only one more touchdown en route to a 41-26 non-conference win at Graham Field.
“(Our) protection broke down a little bit up front, and that didn’t allow us to get the ball downfield,” said Imani head coach Ronnell Heard. “That’s a really good California team on the other side of that ball.”
Senior quarterback and defensive back Colin Phillips accounted for two touchdowns and intercepted three passes in the win.
“We practiced (for the pass) all week. We knew coming in that they were a throwing team,” Phillips said. “We had to just focus on that and getting back and not letting anything deep.”
Dillow thinks defensive back is the hardest position on the field, along with quarterback, and Phillips playing both at a high level is valuable for the Trojans.
“Colin, what a great kid he is,” Dillow said. “Playing both sides of the ball, running that offense and playing corner against the athletes they have, Colin had a very good game.”
The game started exactly how everyone expected with the two highest-scoring offenses in the WPIAL.
On its first possession, California (4-0) put together a nine-play touchdown drive, which ended in a 33-yard pass from Phillips to Cochise Ryan. Junior running back Jelani Stafford ran in the two-point conversion, and the Trojans led 8-0.
It only took the Saints 23 seconds to respond, as Wesley hit senior Sam Fairley for a 33-yard touchdown and then Asante’ Watkins for the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Wesley continued carving up the Trojan secondary on Imani’s next two drives, both of which ended in passing touchdowns to senior Ray Jackson. The first was a 25-yarder to the back corner of the end zone, and the second was a 37-yard strike to give Imani (3-1) the 20-8 lead.
The Trojans put on another nine-play scoring drive, this time ending in a 3-yard run from Phillips.
Phillips then intercepted Wesley, and Stafford – and all of his 263 pounds – ran past the Imani defense for a 48 yards to put the Trojans in the red zone. Senior Zion Aldrich then regained the lead for the Trojans with a 7-yard run.
California forced an Imani three-and-out, and Stafford and Aldrich teamed up again. Stafford, who ran for 100 yards in the second quarter alone, trucked the ball into the red zone, and Aldrich capped the drive with a 12-yard score to give the Trojans the 28-20 lead going into halftime.
After neither team scored in the third quarter, senior Braden Petrucci blocked a punt for California and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown.
Stafford, who totaled 228 yards on 27 carries, put the game away with a 16-yard touchdown run.
“Jelani Stafford is a stud. There’s not a question about that,” Dillow said. “For someone to come through that line and to tackle him, that’s tough. … No matter where Jelani is, it’s going to take a couple guys to tackle him.”
Along with a stout defense, the Trojans were aided by three superb coffin-corner punts inside the 10-yard line from Dustin Mock.
“Dustin Mock is an unbelievable kicker,” Dillow said. “He’s a great kid, and as far as punting like that, I’m going to miss him next year.”
Backup quarterback Israel Reed was put in the game in the fourth quarter to relieve Wesley, who was intercepted four times while also throwing for three touchdowns and 212 yards. Reed connected with junior Rahmon Hart for a garbage-time 40-yard touchdown.
While Dillow is focusing on taking the season one game at a time, his quarterback realizes the importance of a win against a team of Imani Christian’s caliber.
“This is huge,” Phillips said. “They were ranked No. 4 last week and we were ranked No. 5. We’re going up on the ladder.”