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Indian Valley presents tough challenge for Golden Eagles on Friday night

Playing even an average Indian Valley football team has never been easy for the Tyrone Golden Eagles.
Consider that in 1995, when Tyrone won the District 6-AA and Big 8 championships while advancing to the PIAA Final Four, the only blemish on the Eagles’ regular season was a 13-7 loss to Valley at Gray Memorial Field.
Consider that in 1997, when Tyrone fielded what up to that time was the most prolific offense in school history, the Eagles still surrendered four touchdowns to the Warriors in a 49-27 victory.
Now consider that those Valley teams were mediocre at best when compared to the offensive machine Tyrone will face tomorrow night at Mitchell Field when the Eagles and the Warriors face each other for the 15th time.
Valley enters the game 6-1 (3-1 Big 8) following a 28-21 overtime loss a week ago to Class AAA front-runner Huntingdon-a game the Warriors led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and aside from that setback have manhandled opponents all season long.
“This is by far the best offense we’ve seen all season, and it may be the best offense we’ve seen in a couple of seasons,” said Eagle coach John Franco, whose team improved to 4-3 (4-1 Big 8) last week with a 14-7 win over Philipsburg-Osceola. “I’m impressed with how well they run the ball. They don’t just use one guy-it’s very balanced.”
According to Valley coach Gawen Stoker, balance has been the main ingredient to his team’s offensive success. Derrick Weaver leads the team in rushing with 655 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 carries and teammate Lucas Stewart has piled up a gaudy 9.6 yards per carry average (40-386) with six touchdowns. Add to that 233 yards from fullback Matt Fetzer and you’ve got a three-headed rushing attack that hasn’t stopped for anyone.
“We’re fortunate to have that balance and a couple of people that can run the ball pretty well” said Stoker. “The times when we’ve had success running the ball, it’s been directly attributable to the offensive line. We have a saying that all backs are the same without blockers.”
The trouble spot for the Warriors hasn’t been rushing the ball, but stopping the run- a chore that’s proven tricky even against the Big 8’s cellar dwellers. In Week 4, Valley allowed 371 yards on the ground to hapless Bald Eagle Area. Clearfield rushed for more than 180 in Week 3, and last week Huntingdon’s Jon Riley racked up 139 yards on 24 carries.
“What often gets overlooked is our offense has put our defense in a hole on a lot of occasions,” said Stoker. “We did it four times against Huntingdon and our defense stopped them three times. But we run after the ball well. When we’ve put up points, it’s been because our defense gave us good field position.”
But while stopping the run has been a challenge for Valley, at least more of a challenge than scoring seven touchdowns a game- igniting the running game has been a focus for Tyrone. Last week it paid off when the Eagles churned out 247 yards on the ground in sloppy conditions against a Mountie team that knew the run was coming, but was helpless to stop it.
“We were behind in some deplorable conditions and we pulled together and found a way to win,” said Franco. “In the second half, they knew we were going to run and they stacked their men up at the line of scrimmage to stop it and we were still able to move the ball.”
Sophomore Brice Mertiff was the beneficiary of the Eagles’ commitment to the run, piling up a career-best 177 yards on 18 carries while scoring two touchdowns. It was the highest single-game total rushing total for a Tyrone back since Jesse Jones rushed for 311 against Bishop McCort in 2000. It was also the first time this season anyone has been able to overshadow the passing combination of quarterback Tyler Mertiff and receiver Aaron Jeffries, which has grown into the most proficient 1-2 punch in Blair County.
Tyler Mertiff and Jeffries hooked up only twice against P-O for 47 yards, but their numbers through seven games remain eye-catching. Mertiff has completed 70 of 135 passes for 1,130 yards and nine touchdowns, and Jeffries has hauled in 32 receptions for 579 yards and seven scores.
Stoker said his team realizes the challenges presented facing Tyler Mertiff, who despite being thrown for more than 150 yards in losses from sacks this season has still rushed for 162 yards, third on the team.
“We were fortunate enough to have a warm-up against (Huntingdon’s Geoff) Kozak,” said Stoker. “We understand well what happens when you let a quarterback get out of the pocket. But I think Tyler has a better arm than Kozak. Most of the time, when a quarterback scrambles, he can’t throw long as well going towards the line of scrimmage. Tyler can. We have to pressure him, but unfortunately, Tyrone’s line will have a lot to say about that.”
Balance Part II
If the Warriors rushing game wasn’t enough, they’ve got a quarterback in Jeff Hayes who has completed 43 of 73 passes for 759 yards, 8 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 119.6.
He’s spread the ball out among four primary receivers, but Weaver leads the team with 261 yards on 13 catches after totaling 111 last week against the ‘Cats.
Get Over It
Stoker said his team can’t afford to dwell on its loss to Huntingdon, which, barring a Bearcat upset of mythic proportions this Friday at the hands of Lewistown, cost the Warriors a shot at the Big 8 title for the second straight year.
“Our schedule dictates that if we take care of business, we’ll be fine,” said Stoker. “I told the kids that the only game in town Friday night is against Tyrone. We’ve been very business-like this season and we know that when a game is over, it’s over. Six billion people in China got up after the Huntingdon game and didn’t care who won. When the game is over, win or lose you learn what you can and move on. The sad thing is not losing games. The saddest time is when the last game is over, and we still have some games left.”
Post-Season Implications
A win Friday against Indian Valley would make Tyrone a lock for the District 5-6 Class AA playoffs, thanks to the power points the Eagles would reap from the Warriors’ six wins. That provides extra motivation for an Eagle team beginning to heal from a loss to Pius X with last week’s confidence-building 14-7 victory over P-O.
“If we win this week we clinch so we’re looking at it as a great opportunity,” said Franco. “We were really down last week but we’re starting to feel better about ourselves. We feel like we have something to prove, more to ourselves than anyone else. We want to show we’re better than our record.”
Glowing Remarks
Stoker and Franco have combined to win eight District championships and nine Big 8 titles, so it’s little wonder the two legendary coaches have a mutual respect for each other’ programs.
“I’ve always thought Indian Valley has had some of the best athletes in the Big 8,” said Franco. “Its’ a program that’s always loaded and we’ve struggled with them. They’ve been headed in the right direction over the last couple of years and they’ve really put it together.”
aid Stoker: “We consider this a rivalry game. I have a lot of respect for coach Franco and his staff. Our people understand that if you expect to win against a team like Tyrone, you have to play hard.”
Series History
Tyrone and Indian Valley have locked horns 14 times since Chief Logan and Kish consolidated in 1988. Tyrone won the first game 20-0, but then dropped six of the next seven. The all-time series is tied 7-7 following last season’s 28-7 IV win at Gray Veterans Memorial Field.