Bald Eagle Area defense a concern for Tyrone coach John Franco on Friday

One reason for the Tyrone football team’s rise to statewide prominence over the last decade has been its strenuous off-season training program, which includes everything from weightlifting sessions to passing clinics to position camps.
But it’s not just the players who use the months of December through July to prepare for the upcoming season. Their drive and focus is modeled right at the top by head coach John Franco, who along with directing the off-season workouts completes a project of his own each winter. You might call it a research project, and in many ways it’s like an assignment for High School Football 635, a graduate level course in gameday preparation.
This year Franco’s winter project was studying a defensive scheme that has become the new trend for undersized high school football teams, and as fate would have it, it’s the same scheme the undefeated Golden Eagles (3-0, 1-0 MAC Nittany Division) will see tomorrow when they travel to Wingate to face Bald Eagle Area (1-2, 1-1).
The defense is a 3-5-3, which features three down linemen, five linebackers, three defensive backs, and a multitude of blitzes.
“I bought a book on it and read up on it, and then I bought some tapes and films on how it’s run, so I’ve seen a lot of it,” Franco said.
What he’s seen of Bald Eagle Area running the defense has caused some concern. BEA has blitzed on over 75 percent of their downs through the first three games, using a high impact, high energy approach to defense that can take a toll on offensive lines as inexperienced as the Golden Eagles’.
“They will make some big plays,” Franco said. “But they will also give up some big plays. Against a team that blitzes that much, it’s easy for an inexperienced line to lose its poise if they give up a big play, and in essence the defense is based on getting the offensive line confused.
“There will probably be some plays where we look bad, but we’ve got to be able to keep our poise, and then we’ll be able to make some plays.”
For BEA coach Mike Markle, the shift in defensive philosophy was dictated by personnel.
“We’re more attack oriented and predicated on speed,” he said.
The change was everything BEA had hoped for through the first two weeks of the season, and it looked like it might have been the antidote for the defensive shortcomings that had the squad ranked second-to-last in the Nittany Division in total defense in 2004, and dead last in scoring defense.
But last week’s 29-14 loss to Bellwood-Antis exposed BEA’s difficulty defending teams that can run the football. Bald Eagle forced six turnovers, but it also surrendered 366 rushing yards, dropping BEA in one week from the No. 2 team in the Nittany Division against the run to No. 5.
“Bellwood-Antis did a nice job running the ball against us, but we were able to force some turnovers,” said Markle. “That’s something we’re going to have to do again, and it’s something we’ve got to be able to capitalize off of if we’re going to be successful this week.”
While BEA’s defense was truly exposed for the first time, Tyrone’s defense was putting together its best performance of the season in a 47-6 win over Lewistown. Tyrone allowed only 145 total yards, 59 of which came on the ground, forced three turnovers, and ended seven plays in the Panther backfield.
The effort kept Tyrone atop the Nittany Division in most defensive categories, including total defense and scoring defense, but the Golden Eagles will have a different kind of challenge on their hands against BEA’s three-year starting quarterback Camdin Crouse, a versatile passer who, according to Markle, has the ability to be playing on Saturdays next fall.
“He’s coming along well for us, and he’ll be a nice fit for someone after high school,” Markle said. “This isn’t his last year playing football.”
Crouse has completed 20 of 47 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another 68 yards and 5 scores. He has spread the ball around to a variety of receivers, but his main target has been senior David Immel, who has caught eight passes for 184 yards.
“(Crouse) has given us trouble in the past,” said Franco. “The key is going to be for us to get a strong pass rush, and that’s something we’ve been good at. Our quickness has helped us to overcome our lack of size. But they’re a Wing-T team and this is high school football and they’re going to try to establish the run. We’ve got to shut that down, make them one dimensional, and then go after the quarterback.”
Tyrone’s been quite successful at that so far, holding opponents to 90.6 passing yards per game. The Eagles have also come up with seven interceptions and eight sacks.
But what concerns Markle most about Tyrone wasn’t its vaunted defense, but instead its offense, starting with senior quarterback Leonard Wilson. The three-year starter is already off to the best start of his career, having completed 22 of 35 passes for 375 yards and 4 touchdowns.
“Not only is he a great football player, he’s a phenomenal kid,” said Markle. “He’s got great size and speed, and he’s got a real competitive edge.”
Wilson is complemented by three running backs that have each gained over 100 yards this season. Senior Brinton Mingle leads the way with 308 yards and six touchdowns on 61 carries, while junior Tyler Gillmen has 159 yards on 26 carries. Sophomore Johnny Franco has 103 yards on 12 carries, and his four touchdowns rank him second on the team in scoring.
“They have three running backs that could start in any backfield in our league,” said Markle, “and they get after it.”
Senior Trey Brockett is Tyrone top receiver with seven catches for 170 yards. He’s also hauled in a pair of touchdown passes.
One of the most difficult parts about preparing for a team that uses a trendy new offensive or defensive scheme is that it can be difficult to simulate in practice.
One example is the Jet Series Wing-T run by Slippery Rock two years ago. The Golden Eagles saw it and defended it against their scout team, but the actual speed and deceptiveness of the offense could never be truly recreated in practice.
Franco said he was very pleased with the effort his scout team gave this week when it attempted to simulate the kind of blitzing Tyrone will see against BEA.
“(The scout team) has given us a very good look this week,” he said. “They literally blitzed every play in practice from Monday through Wednesday.”
Franco reasserted his displeasure with the Eagles’ difficulties protecting the football through three games.
So far, Tyrone has turned the ball over five times, and fumbled the ball a total of eight times. To put that number into perspective, Tyrone turned the ball over only six times in the 13 games leading up to its PIAA semifinal against Grove City last season.
It’s an issue Franco would like to see rectified, and one that he feels has been the lone sticking point for an offense that is playing better than he anticipated at this point of the season.
“Offensively, we’ve progressed pretty well,” Franco said. “We’re still too sloppy with some things like turnovers, and that just disgusts me. We are going to get better in that area.”