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Battle of running back tandems highlights Tyrone-BG Saturday night showdown

At least for the moment, the public fascination with a reunion of two one-time coaching partners as rivals is lost on Tom Irwin and John Franco.
In fact, neither coach has given it much thought.
Considering that Franco has Tyrone 4-1 and off to its best start since 2000, while at Bishop Guilfoyle Irwin’s Marauders are
likewise 4-1, having won 18 of their last 19 regular season games, there’s actually little need for extra hype leading up to their meeting Saturday at Mansion Park in Altoona.
“I’m looking at the fact that we’re playing a 4-1 team,” said Franco. “That’s something that might enter my mind before the season, but there’s no time during the season. They have the best defense we will have seen this season, so I’m looking at more than coaching against Tom Irwin.”
Still, the temptation to focus on a meeting of two of the greatest football minds in Blair County coaching history is enticing. Franco played for Irwin at Guilfoyle during the 1970s, was as associate head coach with Irwin from 1978-86, and was convinced to begin his coaching career by Irwin.
In all, the two have combined on more than 300 victories and eight District 6 championships as head coaches.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘against,’” said Irwin. “I don’t think of it as coaching against John. He and I have been through a lot and he’s an exceptional coach. I think John probably feels the same way. It’s a game you have to play and it should be good for both teams.”
The challenge should be good for Tyrone because it’s yet to see a team that defends the run as well as the Marauders. BG is surrendering just 167 total yards and 7.6 points per game.
Nor have the Eagles seen a team whose offensive game plan is predicated on the run to the extent that BG’s is. It’s led by Josh DeStefano (6-0, 190) and Matt Georgiana (5-11, 185), a pair of talented running backs that are among the top rushing duos in Blair County. Georgiana alone has gained 561 yards on 101 carries while DeStefano has scored six touchdowns.
But Franco would like to think he has a pretty solid ground game, as well, and when you look at the way his own duo of juniors Brice Mertiff and Ben Gummo have performed through five games, you see why.
Mertiff has gained 681 yards on 101 carries (6.74 yards per carry) and scored nine touchdowns. Gummo has gone for 285 yards on 43 carries, scored four touchdowns and caught six passes for 72 more yards. They are the backbone of a rushing attack that has produced 1,164 yards and 16 touchdowns.
They’ve done so behind a hulking and athletic line that averages 245 pounds across the board. It’s anchored by center Terry Tate (250), with guards Justin Clark (210) and Jake Houck (190), and tackles Ralph VanAllman (315) and Ron Miller (255).
“Tyrone is really solid and they have a tough line,” said Irwin. “Games are won at the line of scrimmage and that’s going to be a real challenge for us. We’re inexperienced up front, where all of our kids are underclassmen. They grew up a little last week. They’ll have to grow up a lot more this week.”
A week ago against Huntingdon, in a 24-7 loss, BG’s line paved the way for the Marauders to gain 198 yards on the ground -110 of which belonged to Georgiana – but it was Guilfoyle’s run defense that, at times, was shaky as the ‘Cats gained 267 yards on the ground.
That’s unusual for the Marauders, who, with DeStefano and Georgiana manning the linebacker positions, have been as strong as anyone against the run.
“We have a lot of respect for their defense. That’s the best part of their team,” said Franco. “They pack 10 guys at the line of scrimmage and dare you to throw the ball. We’ll have to be able to throw if we want to win.”
That’s something that was a tentative venture, at best, as early as three weeks ago for the Eagles. But since opting on sophomore Leonard Wilson as the lone starting quarterback and providing him with the majority of the reps in practice, Tyrone’s passing game has seen steady improvement.
Two weeks ago against Bellefonte, Wilson threw his first career touchdown pass, and last week, in a 28-0 win over Bald Eagle Area, he was 4-of-10 for 86 yards and another score. Wilson’s season numbers stand at 16-of-37 for 187 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception.
“I think we’re starting to get the balance that is the basis of a successful offense,” said Franco. “I think we’re on course. The receivers are finally starting to come on and Leonard’s getting better each week as he gets the reps at practice and he and his receivers get on the same page.”
Battle of the Running Backs
Franco said he challenged his tandem of Gummo and Mertiff to play like the best running duo in Blair County against DeStefano and Georgiana.
“I told them, ‘Let’s see who the best is,’” Franco said. “(DeStefano and Georgiana) are talented backs, but I think we have a couple good ones, too. We’re going to see on Saturday night.”
New Look for Defense
It’s been since the Huntingdon game in Week Two that the Eagles have seen a quality, run-based offensive attack like the one they’ll see against the Marauders.
Tyrone faced Lewistown’s no-huddle spread offense in Week 3 and took on Bellefonte’s spread offense a week later.
Last week, when Bald Eagle’s ground game was limited to just 41 yards, BEA went almost strictly to the air with a shotgun offense in the second half.
In those three games, Tyrone allowed an average of 177 yards per game in the air, while limiting their opponents to 41 yards per game on the ground.
“We definitely like playing against teams that run,” said Franco. “We enjoy the challenge. We’ve been playing against some wide open offenses and we’ve done pretty well, but our kids are the kind of players who like to strap it on, go man on man and see who’s best.”
On the season, Tyrone is surrendering a mere 46 yards per game rushing – 176 total – while allowing 43 points (8.6 per game).
Home Stretch
Saturday’s game begins a tough stretch run to the post-season for both Guilfoyle and Tyrone. The Golden Eagles are currently fourth in the District 6-AA standings with 470 points, while the Marauders are fifth in Class A with 560.
After playing BG, Tyrone will close with Philipsburg-Osceola, Indian Valley and Penns Valley, all at Gray Veterans Memorial Field. P-O is currently third in Class AA at 4-1, while Valley is third in AAA.
The Marauders, meanwhile, take on perennial small school power Pius X in Week 7, followed by Mount Union and rejuvenated Bellwood-Antis.
While Irwin said his philosophy was not to focus on the playoffs – “We just play the games as well as we can and focus on being as good a team as we can be” – the run towards the post-season is squarely on the mind of Franco, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1994.
“The next three weeks will be the test of our season,” said Franco. “We play three quality programs that can give us a gauge on where we stand. Our run to the playoffs begins Saturday.”