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Final game in Big 8 rivalry for Eagles and Bearcats Friday

On the surface, what makes Tyrone’s game tomorrow against the Huntingdon Bearcats at Gray Veterans Memorial Field different is obvious. It’s been four seasons since the Golden Eagles were unbeaten heading into their Big 8 Conference opener.
But there’s something else beneath the surface that is giving Tyrone coach John Franco more reason to feel good about his chances against the two-time defending conference champs.
For the first time since 1999, Tyrone will enter its game against the ‘Cats on the plus side of the turnover ratio, thanks to its 3-to-1 performance last Friday in a 27-0 win over Bellwood-Antis.
“It’s been a while since we could say that,” said Franco. “That’s something we really focus on. I’m even more pleased that we only had one penalty because that discipline can carry over. We have a track record of success in that area and we document it and show it to the players. We have to get them to understand and believe in it.”
Whether it will make the difference against a talented Huntingdon team that features one of the region’s best quarterbacks remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt. Last season, when Tyrone narrowly lost to the ‘Cats 29-20 in a game that wasn’t decided until late in the fourth quarter, Tyrone committed four costly penalties and turned the ball over twice.
Consider that in the context of Huntingdon’s too-close-for-comfort win over Laurel Highlands last Friday, and you’ll understand why ball control and discipline are the key to winning football games on any level.
Huntingdon was penalized 11 times for 60 yards and lost two fumbles, paving the way for Highlands’ fourth-quarter comeback, which was aborted when Geoff Kozak disrupted the Mustangs’ pass for the two-point conversion.
Playmakers
Both Huntingdon and Tyrone have their share of players who can turn a crease in the defense into six points.
For Tyrone, it’s the running tandem of Brice Mertiff and Ben Gummo, a pair of juniors coming off sophomore seasons in which they finished one and two, respectively, in the Eagles’ rushing charts. Mertiff carried the ball 27 times for 156 yards and two scores in the season-opener, while Gummo gained 65 yards and one touchdown on 11 totes.
Franco credited the Eagles’ offensive line, which averages 245-pounds per man, for much of Tyrone’s rushing success.
Huntingdon coach Jim Zauzig was impressed with it, as well.
“Their muscle up front is a concern,” said Zauzig. “They have more beef up front than the Huntingdon County Fair.”
But while Tyrone showed the ability to grind it out – the Eagles passed just three times out of 57 plays – Huntingdon demonstrated a quick-strike ability that translated into easy scores. Kozak ran for a 52-yard touchdown, and passed to Brandon Spayd for 27 yards to set up another score.
That doesn’t mean Zauzig is ready to abandon the Bearcats’ traditional power running game between the tackles. Running back Jerrod Smith gained 117 yards on 20 carries, at one point accumulating 68 on one Huntingdon scoring drive.
“Huntingdon always has an extremely talented group of really good athletes,” said Franco. “They have playmakers. Smith is an outstanding running back, Kozak may be the best athlete we’ll see this season, and they also have two or three receivers that, it they touch the ball, can go all the way.”
Defensive Effort
After holding Bellwood-Antis to just 78 total yards, Franco said he couldn’t recall a time when a Tyrone defense played as well against the Blue Devils.
The Eagles success was due, in large part, to the effort of its linebackers and a strong push from its defensive line.
“We kept Dan Houser from making big plays, and we were very good at the linebacker position and in the secondary,” said Franco.
The ‘Cats secondary wasn’t quite as sharp, twice allowing the Mustangs to score on long drives at the end of the first and second half using mainly the pass. It’s a definite concern for Zauzig.
“That’s an area I say is our strength,” he said. “We definitely have to improve because if that was our strength, what does it say for our weaknesses?”
But the Bearcat defense also showed considerable character for a Week 1 non-conference game. While it bent, it never broke with the game on the line, thanks to Kozak’s heroics and a first-half interception in the endzone by Ronnie Quinn.
“It was definitely a gut-check,” said Zauzig. “Against Tyrone there are going to be peaks and valleys. Hopefully that’s something we can draw on when we hit a valley.”
Quarterback Situation
Franco said he plans to use his current two-quarterback system, featuring sophomore Leonard Wilson and junior Brandon Maceno, “at least for this week or until someone emerges.”
“Otherwise, we’ll keep on going with two,” said Franco. “There’s nothing in the rule book that says you can’t play with two. The team doesn’t seem to care who’s in. On top of that, they’re pretty much equal.”
Against Bellwood-Antis, Maceno was 0-for-2 with one interception and Wilson was 0-for-1.
“It’s hard to evaluate based on that game because we didn’t need to pass,” said Franco. “I knew our running game would be good, but I didn’t know we would control the ball as well as we did.”
Big 8 finale
Since the Big 8 was formed in 1973, Tyrone and Huntingdon have combined to win the conference title 17 times.
However, tomorrow’s game will be the last time the two teams play each other as members of the same division. When the Big 8 expands next season to 12 teams, it will be broken into two separate divisions. Huntingdon will play in the Class AAA Seven Mountains division, while Tyrone will play in the Class AA Nittany division.
The schools will continue their series, which began in 1922, but without the high stakes that have accompanied the game for the last 30 seasons.
“There will be a bit of nostalgia there,” said Franco. “It’s always a fun game to play because the stakes are so high. It’s the end of an era, so to speak, and for everyone, it will be the final swing.”
“(The change) might take a little of the luster off,” said Zauzig, “but it’s still Huntingdon and Tyrone. When the kids line up, they don’t look across and see Big 8, they look at each other as arch-rivals.
Countdown to a milestone
Huntingdon is currently four games shy of the 600-win plateau, a feat accomplished by only eight other Pennsylvania high schools.