Two years ago, Brandon Bailey saw potential in a tall, strong-armed quarterback looking to establish himself in the Richland High program.
Matt Shaffer was a sophomore splitting the quarterback duties with classmate Nico Pecora back then.
A year earlier, the Rams used four different quarterbacks and threw for fewer than 1,000 yards in 10 games.
Shaffer was intent on igniting the passing game.
“He’s really matured over the past two years,” said Bailey, whose 10-0 team last week completed its second straight undefeated regular season with Shaffer at quarterback. “As a sophomore he would make a dumb mistake just about every game. As a junior he cleaned up some of that. This year as a senior he’s made very few errors in terms of a big turnover at an inopportune time. I hope he continues that in the playoffs.”
Shaffer has an area-best 2,052 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and only six interceptions as top-seeded Richland prepares to host No. 8 Ligonier Valley on Friday in the District 6 Class AA playoffs.
It’s Shaffer’s second consecutive 2,000-plus-yards passing season. He’s also thrown for more than 20 touchdowns each of the last three seasons.
Earlier in the season, Shaffer broke the District 6 career touchdown record previously shared by his head coach and two others. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior has 70 career TDs and 27 interceptions.
“Matt has a tremendous work ethic,” Bailey said. “He doesn’t allow anybody to outwork him. Although he has awesome stats and he’s three touchdowns away from 100 career touchdowns passing and rushing combined, he doesn’t focus on those things. He’d rather win the game than have stats any day of the week.”
Shaffer has plenty of company on the Rams’ roster. Richland is deep and talented. Bailey’s team has 25 seniors and numerous players who gained valuable experience in a 14-1 season that included LHAC and 6-AA titles as well as a trip to the state semifinals a year ago.
The Rams’ offense has multiple scoring threats in 1,289-yard rusher Tanner Solarczyk, 793-yard receiver Kyle Flick, Shaffer and more. The offensive line often dominates, and the defense is physical and stifling.
Last week, Richland defenders Ben Verhovsek and Jacob Urban each made crushing tackles that would earn five stars on just about any highlight clip.
Shaffer leads the offense with his arm, and his feet. He’s rushed for 570 yards and 11 touchdowns. Shaffer also has a knack for converting the big fourth down on the run, as anyone who watched the dramatic 28-24 win over Somerset can attest.
“We had a lot of talented kids coming up through our system,” Bailey said. “Nico Pecora was an excellent quarterback and a great all-around athlete. In seventh grade Wuanyai Mayo, who is a quarterback at Johnstown, was on our team. As Matt got older and taller, he developed into a quarterback that was a 6-2, 200-pound kid who could throw and run. It’s a matter of development through the years.”
Last week, Shaffer didn’t throw for a touchdown, though he had an impressive 176 passing yards. He did manage to find the end zone four times as a runner, gaining 69 yards rushing in a 35-14 win over visiting Bellwood-Antis.
“He’s an excellent runner,” Bailey said. “He puts a lot of pressure on the defense. We had a fourth-and-3 and spread everybody out (against Bellwood). We only had three offensive linemen on the field. Tanner Solarczyk blocked for him and he had a 25-yard touchdown run.”
Overall, Shaffer has completed 365 of 614 passes for 5,871 yards.
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Green streak: District 6-A top-seed Portage knocked off unbeaten Heritage Conference champion Homer-Center last week to jump into the top spot and earn a home game against No. 8 Blairsville.
The Mustangs (8-1) whacked the Bobcats 38-6 on the road in Week 9.
Coach Gary Gouse’s traditional ground attack has been impressive once again. Junior Caleb Kephart has rushed for 1,214 yards and 15 touchdowns on 129 carries, and sophomore Luke Dividock has 757 yards and seven scores on 91 attempts.
Portage has 2,619 rushing yards as a team, an average of 8.6 per run and just shy of 300 a game (291). The Mustangs have 36 rushing touchdowns.
As if that isn’t enough for opponents to worry about, junior quarterback Michael Bryja has thrown for 848 yards, completing .542 percent of his passes, with 11 touchdowns and only one interception.
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Eagles prepped: In Class AAA, Somerset will have an opportunity to rewrite the script from last season.
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (9-1) will once again travel to No. 2 University Prep (7-0), a District 8 team. Last season, University Prep won a high-scoring 47-38 game in Pittsburgh.
This time, Somerset will count on a solid defense and versatile offense.
Somerset has rushed for 2,104 yards, or 210.4 a game, with four different runners gaining 286 or more yards. Senior quarterback/back Tanner Stull has 706 yards and probably would be near or over 1,000 if not for a mid-season injury that kept him out.
The only positive from that situation is that sophomore Dylan Barnes developed into a multi-dimensional quarterback who has thrown for 732 yards and rushed for 557. Stull has 512 passing yards.