Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Usc Defense Is Back to Suffocating Ways

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Usc Defense Is Back to Suffocating Ways

Article excerpt

Before each season, the Post-Gazette sends out a questionnaire to high school football coaches. One of the queries asks who might be some of the top players in your conference from opposing teams. This year, one coach in Class 5A's Allegheny Nine put it simply.

"USC has them all."

Sure, Upper St. Clair (3-0, 3-0) entered the season as the top-ranked team in 5A and hasn't relinquished that spot, but is coach Jim Render's team really that loaded?

"I don't know that I would go quite that far," he said with a laugh. "You know, we got waxed in our last game of 2015 by Pittsburgh Central Catholic. So when somebody says we 'have them all,' it has to be proven what we have."

Upper St. Clair might not have all the best players in a conference that includes Woodland Hills and West Allegheny, but so far, the Panthers are proving they have plenty - especially on defense.

Through three games, they've allowed just one touchdown and 13 points total, a 4.3-per-game average that's No. 3 in the WPIAL and No. 1 in the two largest classifications. That's a big step forward for a defense that yielded 25.6 a game last year, including a season-high 49 in that first-round playoff loss the winningest coach in WPIAL history still brings up.

"After that bashing by Central Catholic at the end of last year, it would've been easy for me to retire," said Render, 74. "But I felt something about the returning guys and I wanted to coach them."

Linebackers Eli Grape, a senior on the inside who's also a standout wrestler, and Colin McLinden, a sophomore who even started some games last year as a freshman, have been Render's most productive so far. They've combined for 33 tackles - seven for a loss - plus three sacks and two forced fumbles. But one of the biggest changes for the defense this year has been the play of Pitt offensive line recruit Gabe Houy - a 6-foot-7, 265-pound tackle - on the other side of the ball.

"I like to think I've been helping a lot," said Houy, who only started on offense last year but lost 20 pounds in the offseason to become more mobile. …

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