Golden Eagles respect for Penns Valley may not be much help at Gray-Veterans Field on Friday

Tyrone coach John Franco probably isn’t a fan of NFL players like the Bengals’ Chad Johnson or the Eagles’ Terrell Owens, who have made names for themselves through their elaborate end zone celebrations as much as their play on the field.
Old school to the end, Franco is much more concerned with respecting the game and respecting an opponent, so for him, taunting is a definite no-no.
One sure way, he said, to demonstrate your respect for an opponent is through effort.
“The best way to show a team you respect them is by giving them your best shot,” he said. “You come out and show that you think highly enough of them to play your hardest.”
Somewhere in Centre County, Penns Valley coach Martin Tobias may be wishing Franco could ease up on his “respect” stance a little, but there’s small chance that’s going to happen.
The 2-6 Rams come to Gray Veterans Memorial Field tomorrow on Senior Night to face the undefeated Golden Eagles in a MAC Nittany Division game, and with all Franco says Tyrone has on the line, there’s slim chance that he will allow his squad to ease off the throttle now.
“We have an opportunity for an undefeated regular season, and that would be our fourth undefeated regular season in the last 10 years,” Franco said. “This team could enter a very elite group by doing that. On top of that, if we take a step backwards, it hurts our quest for a District title, and that’s the ultimate goal here.”
Tyrone’s last undefeated regular season came in 1999, when the Eagles went 9-0 before sweeping through the playoffs to win the PIAA Class AA championship. Franco also coached undefeated teams in 1996 and 1997.
Only five other teams finished the regular season without a loss in the 84-year history of football at Tyrone Area High School. The first came in 1924 (9-0-1), and was followed by perfect campaigns in 1940 (12-0-1), 1942 (11-0-1), 1947 (11-0) and 1948 (11-0).
That means that, far from playing a meaningless Senior Night game, there is actually a lot on the line for the Eagles and Franco, who saw his first shot at an undefeated season at Tyrone shot down by a 2-6 Indian Valley team in the season-finale in 1995.
“Finishing undefeated is not usually a goal for us, but this is something we’re looking forward to,” Franco said.
The approach Franco has preached to his team all week is something that makes Tobias’ job with the Rams even tougher. Now, on top of bringing one of his youngest teams to play at the home of an unbeaten No. 1 seed on its Senior Night, he will also have to deal with overcoming the intensity Franco will demand from his players.
“We’re going to have to put all of that aside and focus on doing our best,” Tobias said. “This is our playoff. It’s something that can help us one or two years from now as the team matures and when we are involved in the playoffs. It can only help us to play in an atmosphere like this.”
So far, Valley’s best hasn’t been quite enough against opponents in the Nittany Division. The Rams’ only two wins have come against Mount Union and West Branch, two lowly Single-A schools who have only three wins between them. Against divisional opponents, Valley is 0-4 and allowing over 34 points per game.
“We’re still trying to learn to play up to the competition,” said Tobias. “This is a competitive conference and if I’m not mistaken we’re one of the smallest schools in it. Our kids have to learn to play up to the next level.”
One obstacle has been the Rams’ relative inexperience. On a roster of 45 players, Penns Valley has only nine seniors, and many key contributors are sophomores, including starting quarterback Matt Johnson, who has completed 44 of 107 passes for 407 yards, while throwing 8 interceptions. Junior running back Chris Korn has been the lone bright spot, gaining 715 yards on 117 carries.
“Offensively, we’re a work in progress,” Tobias said. “Our kids are improving every week, and I’m proud that they have remained competitive in the face of some tough competition.”
The competition will never get any stiffer for the Rams than it will be this week. The Eagles are ranked No. 4 by both the Harrisburg Patriot and the Pennsylvania Football News, and all indications are they are very much worthy of their position in the top 5.
Quarterback Leonard Wilson is on the verge of becoming the first quarterback in Tyrone history to pass for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, Brinton Mingle is 160 yards away from becoming the schools 13th 1,000-yard rusher, and the first team defense hasn’t allowed more than one touchdown in a game since Week 1.
With one of the most balanced offenses in the Franco Era, the Eagles have three rushers besides Mingle with over 150 yards (Tyler Gillmen, 432; Johnny Franco 320; Wilson 175), and three receivers with over 140 yards (Trey Brockett 367; Shane Barr, 191; Doug Morrow, 143).
Defensively, Tyrone is +12 in the turnover ratio while recording 65 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Robert Emigh is the team’s leader in sacks with 7, while James Updike leads the squad with 13 tackles for loss.
Still, the old school Franco doesn’t put much stock in mismatches on paper.
“I’ve been around too long to take anything for granted,” he said. “The minute you do that, you get beat.”
The Tyrone Area School District will recognize senior members of the football team, band and cheerleading squads as part of its senior night ceremonies tomorrow.
Franco heaped heavy praise on this year’s senior class, most notably for stepping forward to become leaders.
“It’s a group of kids who were always good followers, and you need that,” Franco said. “The class in front of them was filled with natural leaders, so they never had to assume that role. But they took charge, and little by little the guys really got it together.”
Franco said it started with Mingle and Wilson, who came into this season with the most experience, but soon it filtered down through the entire class.
“Trey stepped forward and then Thad Graham became like a coach on the field,” he said. “Bob Emigh is probably the biggest turnaround story of a player becoming a leader. Shane Barr and Buddy Stotler had to learn a new system and they became leaders by example. Other players like Matthew Lauder, Tyler Updike, Marvin Williams and Keith Leader assumed important roles on the team. They may not have been natural leaders, but they found something they could do to help us.”
Since the Class of 2006 moved to the varsity team as sophomores, Tyrone has gone 31-4 with two District championships.
Just as Franco wants his players to respect every opponent, Penns Valley will enter tomorrow’s game with a healthy respect for the Eagles. According to Tobias, his staff is always impressed watching Franco-coached teams on film in preparation for this game.
“The thing that impresses me most about Tyrone and coach Franco is that their execution is almost flawless,” he said. “It’s impressive to watch just as a fan, let alone as an opposing coach. Their quarterback, Leonard Wilson, is an outstanding leader with the ability to turn nothing into something. He controls their offense. They have a plethora of running backs with different running styles, and their line is impressive on both sides of the ball.”
With the playoffs just a week away, you might think the Eagles spent at least part of their week tweaking the offense, adding a new wrinkle here or there, or installing some packages other playoff teams haven’t seen on film.
Not so, according to Franco.
Instead, Tyrone has spent most of the week going back to the basics in preparation for Penns Valley. It’s a move Franco feels can help prevent the Eagles from playing sloppy in a game that would be easy to overlook.
“We worked a lot on our fundamentals,” Franco said. “Penns Valley may be having a rough season, but there are plenty of books full of stories of teams that rose to the occasion to win when they were underdogs.”