PITTSBURGH, Pa. - One would think it would be hard to find fault with a 47-6 running-clock victory, but Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward coach Rick Finotti didn't struggle poking holes in his team's performance Friday night against Pittsburgh (Pa.) Penn Hills.
"I am pretty upset with the way we started the game," he said. "We started too slow, we didn't execute and we need to work on it."
St. Edward, the No. 54-ranked team in the RivalsHigh 100, opened the game with a punt following a three-and-out.
The defense then allowed Penn Hills to march the ball 86-yards down the field - converting two fourth downs - and score a touchdown to take the early lead.
After returning the ensuing kickoff to the Penn Hills 20 yard line, the Eagles picked up a first down on its first set of downs and then stalled, gaining just 4 more yards and settling for a 23-yard field goal.
"I am a simple-minded guy," Finotti said. "No one is ever going to accuse me of inventing anything. You get the ball; you try to get it to second-and-medium. You gain a little on second down and try to move the chains on third. We were not doing that and second-and-medium became third-and-long too many times."
Finotti's philosophy works. It helped his team to an undefeated season, a state title in perhaps the nation's toughest tournament and the No. 3 spot in the final RivalsHigh Top 100 rankings last fall. This year's team, now 2-0, sits at No. 54.
But such success didn't come just from offense. Defense has long been the calling card of the Ohio-Pennsylvania region and it was on display Friday night.
St. Edward never did get that one long sustaining drive, but it did do enough on defense to turn the game.
After junior running back Dwayne Aaron scored a touchdown on the first drive of the second quarter, to give St. Ed's a 10-6 lead, the defense took over.
It returned an interception to the Penn Hills' 1, where Aaron went in again for a 17-7 lead.
St. Ed held Penn Hills to another quick series, forcing a punt that went out of bounds after traveling just 7 yards - allowing St. Ed to start on the Penn Hills 23 yard-line. St. Ed again capitalized with Aaron going in for his third touchdown of the quarter, extending the lead to 24-6 and effectively ending the game.
"Dwayne Aaron is a kid that ran scout team for us last year for 15 games," Finotti said. "That kid got his butt kicked every day and never complained. He is a quiet kid that has waited his turn."
After struggling to earn a 17-14 overtime win against Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville in the opening week of the season, piling on the points was, to an extent, a sigh of relief for St. Ed.
"It always feels good to score points," Aaron said. "That is how you win."
Aaron added a fourth touchdown on the first series of the second half after St. Ed recovered a pooch kickoff on the Penn Hills side of the field.
Before the middle of the third quarter, St. Ed had forced Penn Hills to punt again, then threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Jones to make it 38-6.
The defense then got into the scoring act.
After a miscommunication on the kickoff forced Penn Hills to start its own 3, St. Ed pushed it the other direction, forcing a safety for a 40-6 advantage.
Following the free kick, St. Ed hit on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Chris Connors, forcing the running clock and setting the final score.
While it was furious action for the Eagles all night, nothing was sustained - and that was the take away for Finotti.
"We are young team," he said. "We have a lot of good teams coming up and we need to gain a lot more experience before those games. We didn't play as well as that score would make you think we did."
On the scoring drives for St. Ed, the average starting field position was the Penn Hills 30.
Only once did St. Edward have a drive that had more than two first downs; on its non-scoring drives (with the varsity team on the field), it started with the ball three times inside its own territory and had two three-and-outs and one fumble.
"That concerns me," Finotti said. "We didn't have to drive the ball today; the times when we would have, we didn't. We didn't really get in gear. We just took advantage of our opportunities.
"A lot of the teams we have to play this season will not give us those opportunities."
St. Edward still has games with three nationally ranked teams: No. 1 Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco; No. 15 Cincinnati (Ohio) St. Xavier; No. 24 Cincinnati (Ohio) Moeller.
It also has games with Cincinnati (Ohio) Elder, Tampa (Fla.) Jefferson and its rivalry game with Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius.
"We have to be ready to come out and win every week," Darryl Render, a senior defensive end and Pittsburgh commit, said. "We came out and played a little flat. Then we got on a roll. We came out in the second half and played like we were behind."
The play-from-behind mentality is something that, according to the head coach, is something he may have to implore in a real situation.
"If we don't play better, it may not look like this," he said. "If we think we can come out like that, specifically against St. X or Bosco, we will be in for it.
"It isn't innovation, it is execution. That's the name of the game."