By Rob Senior
ROYERSFORD >> The inclement weather at McNelly Stadium played directly into the hands of Downingtown East. But not in the way observers might have expected.
The Cougars, known for their punishing running game (averaging 250 yards per contest), broke out a no-huddle offense that moved at breakneck speed — something they hadn’t put on tape all season.
“The weather definitely helped us,” said Downingtown East coach Michael Matta. “We pride ourselves on running the ball and stopping the run.”
The 10th-seeded Cougars followed that precise recipe, accumulating 349 yards on the ground on an eye-popping 75 carries, in throttling No. 7 Spring-Ford 39-12 and advancing to the District 1 Class 6A quarterfinals.
Spring-Ford’s Stephen Brill rushes to the outside against Downingtown East. (MJ McConney – For Digital First Media
Zach Hamilton ran for 194 yards and three TDs as the Cougars took advantage of four first-half turnovers in building a 25-0 lead before Spring-Ford could get on the board.
His backfield mate Garvey Jonassaint, the Ches-Mont’s leading rusher, chipped in with another 124 yards on the evening and a score of his own.
The idea of 124 yards rushing constituting a description of “chipping in” speaks to the pure dominance of the Cougars, who brought out a new, up-tempo attack and had their way most of the night.
“These games are won in the weight room,” said Hamilton, echoing Coach Matta’s sentiments.
“Everybody wants to win out here tonight,” Matta added. “But not everybody is willing to do what it takes in January to get here.”
Downingtown East, now 9-2, moves onto a rematch with No. 2 Coatesville, a winner over Central Bucks East on Friday night. The Cougars fell to Coatesville, 42-7, just last week.
“We can beat them,” Matta emphasized. “We’ll need to get some breaks, take better care of the football.
“But we’re not afraid of them. Everybody else seems to be; we are not afraid of them.”
For Spring-Ford, the season comes to an end with a record of 8-3.
“We can’t make any excuses,” lamented Spring-Ford’s coach Chad Brubaker. “Too many times, things get away from us when we freelance.”
The first quarter featured some big gambles on both sides, as Downingtown East went for a first down on 4th and short at their own 10-yard line, but were stuffed by the SF defensive line. But the golden opportunity went for naught as Spring-Ford fumbled on a reverse, giving it back to East at the Downingtown 33.
The Cougars effectively ran a no-huddle for 14 plays in only about 2:30 of game time, and seemed poised to take the lead when another fumble led to a touchback.
But early in the second quarter, the Cougars cashed in what was already the game’s fifth turnover when Stan Bryant picked off Ryan Engro and returned the ball 47 yards down the left sideline for a 7-0 Cougars lead.
The ensuing kickoff was coughed up by the Rams, and three bruising Hamilton carries later, the Downingtown East lead was 13-0 early in the second quarter.
Hamilton, who regularly churned out an extra 2-3 yards after meeting first contact, moved with in 25 yards of the 1,000-yard mark himself for the season.
After another Spring-Ford drive stalled, a low snap to the punter gave D-East the ball at the SF 30. Again, it was Hamilton doing the dirty work, finishing off the drive from nine yards out to give the Cougars a 19-0 advantage.
Spring-Ford drove deep into East territory right before the break, but ran out of time on the one-yard line, just as a momentum-changing TD looked certain.
The Rams never recovered. After the break, East picked up right where they left off, going 74 yards in 14 plays and just over three minutes before Jonassaint’s six-yard scoring run made it 25-0.
“I don’t think the weather had too much to do with (the outcome),” said Jonassaint. “We were going to come out and run the football no matter what.”
The Rams would get on the board early in the fourth quarter when Engro found BJ Beard for a 10-yard touchdown. However, the Cougars responded with an 11-play, 53-yard drive with Luke Davis finding Matt Harootunian for a 5-yard score to widen the lead to 32-6.
Juniors Engro and Dante Bonanni had big nights in the losing effort for Spring-Ford. Engro threw for 302 yards, 202 of them to Bonanni, whose yardage total and 12 receptions accounted for PAC season highs. Their 82-yard connection with seven minutes to play would bring the Rams within three scores.
But it was Hamilton, capping his night with a powerful 24-yard run to widen the lead once again, this time to the final margin of 39-12.
Now the Cougars move onto to face the District and perhaps state favorites in the Red Raiders of Coatesville. Matta’s emphasis on not fearing the heavy favorites resonates with his pair of senior running backs.
“We came out tonight and exerted our will, ran it down their throats,” said Jonassaint. “We will have the same exact mentality next week.”