Eagles hope to benefit from first half experience last week to beat McCort

Most of the three-thousand or so fans who were at Gray Veterans Memorial Field last Friday for Tyrone’s 47-30 victory over Penn Cambria in the first round of the District 5-6 AA playoffs came away with one of two philosophies on the Golden Eagles’ chances in this year’s postseason: either the team survived a much-needed wake-up call that will set it in line for the rest of the playoffs, or it exposed itself as a squad that may not be up to its No. 1 seeding.
It should come as no surprise that the game inspired such emotion and interest. The Eagles used a frenetic third quarter to score three touchdowns and rally from a 30-13 halftime deficit, orchestrating the biggest second-half comeback in Tyrone playoff history.
For coach John Franco, the game helped the Eagles if only by exposing them to the short end of the score. Before then, Tyrone hadn’t trailed at any time this season, and even their biggest games were over by the third quarter.
What that all means as Tyrone advances in the postseason – which continues for the Eagles tomorrow in a semifinal game against No. 5 Bishop McCort at Gray Veterans Field – is debatable.
“If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger, so in that sense it definitely made us better – but that doesn’t guarantee us anything,” Franco said. “We may be a better team and it still may not be enough against Bishop McCort. They’re a good football team.”
That much was evident in the Crushers’ semifinal game against Bedford where, like Tyrone, McCort was forced to play much of the game from behind. In fact, McCort trailed by 12 as late as the 3:30 mark of the fourth quarter, but was able to rally behind the arm of veteran quarterback Mike Sheridan. His two touchdown passes in the final period boosted the Crushers to a 24-21 win, and a set up a rematch of last year’s District 5-6 AA championship.
“I’m proud of the heart and character we showed in the comeback,” said McCort coach Ken Salem. “That was our best effort this season when it was late with the game on the line.”
Salem, who is in his tenth season with the Crushers, no doubt could do without another nail-biter this week, but if his strategy works according to plan, it may be exactly what he gets. After seeing the Golden Eagles’ high-powered offense rack up three touchdowns in less than nine minutes in the third quarter against Penn Cambria, he feels the Crushers’ best bet is to simply keep Tyrone’s offense in the one place he knows it can’t do any damage – on the sidelines.
“We feel we have to move the ball for two reasons,” Salem said. “One, we want to get into a rhythm offensively, and two, to keep their offense off the field. Scoring is not as much of a concern as moving the ball and not giving their offense opportunities.”
That was precisely the strategy of Penn Cambria coach Ernie Fetzer, and it worked better than even he could have anticipated for two quarters last Friday. But with the multitude of weapons Tyrone has in its offensive arsenal, it’s one that often only works for so long.
Running back Brinton Mingle and quarterback Leonard Wilson scored four of Tyrone’s five second-half touchdowns, and Johnny Franco turned a Penn Cambria turnover into another score as the Eagles outscored the Panthers 34-0 without ever throwing a pass.
“They have a very balanced offense, a physical offensive line, three good running backs, and a quarterback that probably has the best arm in the District,” said Salem. “Our plan is to play mistake-free. We can’t have any turnovers. Penn Cambria moved the ball in the second half against them, but they turned the ball over when they started to get some momentum.”
Franco, too, appreciates the role turnovers play in the playoffs. Last week, the Eagles turned the ball over twice in the first half and trailed by 17. They went without a turnover in the second half and won going away.
“We’ve preached that for years,” he said. “Every year since 1995 we’ve been on the plus side in turnovers, so that tells you how important that is.”
If Tyrone has any advantage against McCort, it may be on the defensive side of the ball. Until last week, only one team had scored more than once against Tyrone’s first-string defense.
Tyrone has made 74 stops behind the line of scrimmage and limited its opponents to only 170 yards per game. James Updike, Tyler Hoover and Robert Emigh have led the charge, combining on 38 of the Eagles’ tackles for loss and 16 sacks.
They will be challenged this week by a line Franco compared favorably to Tyrone’s offensive line from a season ago – the biggest in school history.
“They don’t really resemble their team from last year that was quick and fast,” Franco said. “Now, they’re big, strong guys. They’re a power running team. Their line is almost identical to our from last season.”
Their work has given the Crushers a very balanced rushing attack, with three players accumulating over 350 yards on the ground. Brad Barbin is the leader with 522 yards on 107 carries, while Scott Lewis has gained 467 yards on 54 carries.
Their strength is balanced by the precision of Sheridan, who has completed 71 of 118 passes for 793 yards and 16 touchdowns.
McCort’s ability to run and pass is a concern for Franco, but he’s hoping the Eagles’ mental approach will prepare them for a battle from the outset.
“It’s been as good as I can remember all year,” she said of his team’s approach this week. “That’s more than I can say for last week. It’s amazing what a change one game can cause.”
Millennium Man
Mingle eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau last week with 170 yards on 18 carries. He now has 1,103 yards on 170 carries, and more than 2,000 yards for his career.
Mingle becomes the fifth running back under Franco to reach 1,000 yards, and the thirteenth rusher in Tyrone history to accomplish the feat.
It was Mingle’s 92-yard touchdown run to start the second half began the Eagles’ amazing comeback, but Franco said Mingle’s contributions to the Penn Cambria game, as well as to the team’s preparation for McCort, go beyond what the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder brings to the table physically.
“He really was the one that stepped forward (against Penn Cambria) and got everyone together for the second half,” said Franco. “Brit and Leonard have set the tone for us all year. They’re the vocal ones and they’re the ones that tell the players when someone’s not working hard enough or focused enough.”
McCort has played one other game in Tyrone in 2000 at old Gray Memorial Field. The Crushers led early but were overpowered in the second half in a 34-20 loss in the District quarterfinals.
Salem remembers the game, but what stands out most is not the players or the action, but the crowd support.
“Coach Franco has built something very special, and when you go there to play, you know they’re going to have great support and an enthusiastic crowd,” Salem said. “It’s the premier program in District 6.”
It’s an unsolved mystery, but Sue Franco doesn’t need Agatha Christie to get to the bottom of this caper.
Every year since her husband John took over as the Eagles’ coach in 1994, Sue has received a bouquet of flowers from an anonymous donor who no doubt understands the challenges of being a football-coaching widow from August through November.
Now that John has extended his contract with Tyrone and moved his family to the borough, the secret floral arrangement may be landing on the Franco’s doorstep for years to come. It’s a mystery Sue can live with, but as in year’s past, she would like to extend a thank you wish to whomever sent them.