Most coaches would cringe at having to thrust a freshman quarterback into a game in which the conference championship and a playoff berth were at stake.
Not Mike Sirianni.
The head football coach at Washington & Jefferson College turned to Pete Coughlin when Matt Bliss went down with a season-ending concussion last Saturday against Waynesburg.
Coughlin responded with a mistake-free performance, completing five of eight passes for 71 yards and rushing seven times for 13 yards.
The result was a 38-13 win for W&J over the arch-rival Yellow Jackets, which allowed the Presidents to tie Thomas More for first place in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference and earned a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Now, it really gets tough for Coughlin.
He’ll have a week of practice with the first team offense to prepare for Saturday’s first-round playoff game against arguably the best team in Division III football in Mount Union.
Kickoff is noon in Alliance, Ohio.
“I’ll be ready,” said Coughlin. “I have been getting more reps in practice, and I’m watching more film. Mount Union is a talented team and do a lot of different things.”
“I don’t want him to try to do too much,” said Sirianni. “I told him if he can run, run, but don’t try to force things. He’s played in big games before.”
Coughlin is a graduate of Upper St. Clair who was recruited by Mount Union and played in WPIAL championship and semifinal games.
“It prepared me a lot,” he said. “I played on the two biggest stages you can in high school. It just gave me more confidence.”
W&J (8-2), making its second straight playoff appearance and 23rd in school history, is a decided underdog to the No.1-ranked team in every Division III poll. That doesn’t faze Coughlin.
“I respect how talented they are and how successful they have been,” he said. “But this is just another game, and I have to treat it that way.”
Coughlin has played in eight games and replaced Bliss once before when Bliss was injured early in the season. He has completed 38 of 56 passes for 373 yards and a touchdown. He has not thrown an interception.
“We’ll take a look at what they have with both quarterbacks,” said Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres. “I don’t think their offense is going to change much. (Coughlin) is an incredible athlete. We tried to recruit him.”
Coughlin said Kehres and USC head coach Jim Render are friends and Render went to Mount Union to see Kehres so he could discuss football matters. Render mentioned Coughlin’s name to Kehres and the Purple Raiders made an effort to get Coughlin.
“He told Coach Kehres that their quarterback reminded him of our quarterback,” Coughlin said. “I chose W&J because of its proximity.”
Coughlin played against Mount Union’s second team in the annual scrimmage the Purple Raiders have with W&J.
“I played at the end,” he said. “I did all right, but I wasn’t sure of the (W&J) offense at that point. I wasn’t really comfortable with it.”
Sirianni realizes the Presidents must depend on their playmakers on offense – tailback Dion Wiegand and wide receiver Alex Baroffio – to score points, and a cumulative effort by an improving defense to stop Mount Union’s high-powered offense.
“It’s not all on his shoulders,” Sirianni said of Coughlin. “We all have to play well to win this game.”