FREEDOM — Third downs on both sides of the ball are pivotal to the success of any football team.
Friday night, third down spelled doom for the Neshannock High football team.
Brentwood finished 7 of 12 on third downs to extend drives and wear down the Lancers' defense en route to a 20-0 WPIAL Class 2A quarterfinal-round win at Freedom High School.
"They had a good game plan together," Fred Mozzocio said of the Spartans. "We had the quarterback pinned in, hemmed in, chasing him and he scrambled out of the pocket and made some runs and made some first downs."
Neshannock was held to 3 of 12 on third-down conversions.
The Spartans (10-2) advance to meet Washington (12-0), a 28-0 winner over Freedom, at 7 p.m. Friday at a site to be determined.
The Lancers' season ends at 9-3. It was a season that saw the team get back to the postseason just one year after missing the playoffs. In addition, Neshannock captured the Midwestern Athletic Conference crown.
"We won a conference title. It wasn't easy," Mozzocio said. "Every week we were grinding and pounding. These last three weeks, it slowly took a toll on us."
Brentwood did all of its damage in the first half. The Spartans took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards in six plays, capped off by a 24-yard touchdown tote by Aiden Wardzinsky.
Brentwood tacked on two touchdowns in the second quarter, led by quarterback John Milcic. Milcic hooked up with Ian Thomas on a 28-yard scoring strike with 7:05 to go in the opening half. He then dashed in from 16 yards out.
The Spartans went for two points following each touchdown. The first two attempts failed. But Milcic found Eddie Gomez in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion and a 20-0 lead with just 30.5 seconds to go in the half.
Wardzinsky and Milcic combined for 187 rushing yards and Milcic threw for 97 more.
"We knew coming in that they were two good football players and they were a two-headed monster and they showed it again tonight," Mozzocio said of Wardzinsky and Milcic. "We had a hard time getting our hands on them."
Neshannock was trying to get to halftime down just 12-0. But penalties plagued the Lancers throughout the game and helped set up Brentwood's third score.
Neshannock was whistled for 10 penalties for 146 yards for the contest. The Lancers were flagged for an intentional grounding call late in the first half on a third-down play. Mozzocio didn't agree with the call and he was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. The exchange pushed Neshannock back and into a fourth-and-39 situation from its own 20, punting with just a little over a minute to go in the half.
"There were a lot of penalties. There were some penalties on their side, we got called for some late hits. The quarterback was still running, reaching out the ball trying to get more yards. I don't know what they expected us to do," Mozzocio said of some of the other infractions more specifically.
Brentwood took advantage of the short field and punched it in for the third score of the half.
The Lancers played inspired in the second half. Neshannock kept the Spartans off the scoreboard and forced a turnover that turned away a Brentwood drive.
Neshannock had four second-half possessions. One ended in a punt from its own 26. Three others ended in incomplete passes on fourth down in Brentwood territory — from the 41, 11 and 15, respectively.
"As we got closer, we sort of sputtered tonight," Mozzocio said. "Usually we cash in when we get in the red zone. Tonight, we didn't.
"That's hats off to them and the job they did defensively. They played one hell of a football game defensively."
Mozzocio said the team made some adjustments at halftime.
"We tried to use (Braden) Gennock as a decoy and run some QB tags in the second half, which got us going a little bit," Mozzocio said. "(Quarterback) Jason (Nativio) hit a couple of deep balls for us.
"We felt the offense was there. We felt everything we were doing was still doing well, we just didn't execute. They had a little more zip in their legs than we did. They outplayed us. No excuses."
Gennock led the Lancers in rushing with 66 yards on 18 carries. Nativio was 10 of 28 through the air for 134 yards.
Neshannock loses 11 players from its preseason roster — Mike Bonner, D.J. DeBlasio, Gennock, Josh Medure, Jeremy Nativio, Jason Nativio, Nico Nuzzo, Andy Presnar, Jake Staph, Tristan Tuck and Ethan Weatherby.
"I told them how proud of them I am," Mozzocio said of his message to the seniors after the game. "For these guys to come out and have a 9-3 football season, we're not the most talented team and we're not the biggest team, but, man, they played hard every game for us.
"They left it all out there every single game. There wasn't a game that I could ever say we didn't play hard. When you do that, you have a clear heart and a clear mind. We left it all out on the field. They never quit. They have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes you're going to win, sometimes you're going to lose. It just wasn't our night tonight, unfortunately."