Football is a game that isn’t necessarily won by the team that strikes first.
Often, the winner is the team that strikes the hardest.
And the longest.
Were that not the case, a grounds crew would be cleaning Gray Veterans Memorial Field for the last time today because in last night’s District 5-6 AA quarterfinal game in Tyrone, Penn Cambria dealt the top-seeded Golden Eagles a staggering blow early, taking a 15-point lead in the first quarter and building it into a 17-point edge by halftime.
But in one of the more remarkable turnarounds in Tyrone football history given the magnitude of the game, Tyrone scored on three straight possessions in the third quarter and outscored the Panthers 30-0 in the second half to win 47-30 and advance to the District semifinals for the ninth time under coach John Franco.
The victory preserved Tyrone’s unblemished record, improving the Eagles to 10-0, and secured Franco’s eighth 10-win season.
It also showed that the Eagles, everybody’s favorite to win another District championship after cruising through the regular season winning by an average of 31 points per game, were capable of coming from behind – something they never had to do in their nine first games.
“We haven’t been challenged during a game,” said Franco. “So they weren’t sure how to respond. Really, we just challenged them (at halftime). We challenged the seniors that this could be their last game. Do you want to go out playing like you played in the first half, or do you want to go out playing like you’ve played all year and all of your career.”
It’s almost a lock that Tyrone couldn’t have played much worse than it did in the first half. Of the 350 yards the Eagles’ defense surrendered, 262 of them came in the first two quarters, when the Panthers built a 30-17 lead. During that same time, Tyrone was burnt for 11 plays of 10 yards or longer.
“We have an audible system, and we were just trying to find the holes and check to where they would be at,” said Penn Cambria coach Ernie Fetzer. “We felt they were giving us some things and our quarterback did a nice job with that. I thought we executed well offensively.”
But the second half was a different story because then the Panthers’ offense executed itself, turning the ball over twice in key situations, one of which led directly to a touchdown.
Of the Panthers’ four turnovers, the third was the costliest, coming just as Cambria was driving for a go-ahead score after the Golden Eagles went ahead 33-30 in the third quarter. Seven plays into a grinding drive that advanced the ball to Tyrone’s 25, Andrew Choros took a handoff around the right end and was met by sophomore Johnny Franco, who stood Choros up, stripped the football and raced 75 yards for a touchdown that made it 40-30 with 11:46 left in the game.
“We hit head-to-head and shoulder-to-shoulder, and the ball just went into my hands,” said the younger Franco. “In the huddle, we were positive and didn’t want to be negative at all. We said we needed a big play and we were able to come up with a big turnover.”
“That was a huge play,” said coach Franco. “Johnny has a knack of making the big play. He’s done that all his life.”
But it wasn’t the only big play of the second half. In fact, none were bigger than senior Brinton Mingle’s career-high 92-yard touchdown run on the first play of the third quarter that pulled Tyrone within 30-20 and electrified the home crowd.
The run came right after the Eagles were penalized for a hold on the second half kick return. On it, Mingle broke free at the line of scrimmage and cut through traffic twice, but it was a bone-crushing block by Tyler Gillmen at midfield that ultimately cleared him to the endzone.
“I got a hole, broke it back and was gone,” said Mingle, who ran for a career-best 172 yards on 18 carries. “Gillmen had an awesome block, and we ran behind Tyler Hoover all night. The senior class, with an undefeated season, we didn’t want to go out like that. We had to come back with heart.”
Heart and momentum were all on the side of Penn Cambria in the first half. The Panthers scored on their fifth play from scrimmage when quarterback Luke Tomaselli turned a quarterback sweep into a 47-yard touchdown, slicing through Tyrone’s defense with a cutback move that gave him the left sideline and the corner of the endzone. His run after the score gave the Panthers an 8-0 lead.
Undaunted, Tyrone methodically moved the ball downfield on its first possession, going 52 yards on eight plays in 5:30 to make it 8-7. Mingle carried seven times for 24 yards on the series, blasting in from the 1 with 4:14 left in the first quarter.
But PC struck twice in the next three minutes, thanks in part to a Tyrone turnover, to go ahead by two scores. The first touchdown came on a 65-yard pass to Chris Buck from Tomaselli, who caught the Eagles’ defensive backs cheating up on a play-action fake. Buck went streaking down the center of Tyrone’s secondary, but by the time Leonard Wilson and Trey Brockett recovered, it was too late, and the Panthers led 14-7.
On Tyrone’s ensuing possession, Franco fumbled on the first play, giving Cambia the ball at Tyrone’s 35. From there, it took only four plays before Alex Strittmatter broke containment around the right end to score and make it 22-7 with 1:21 left in the opening period.
Franco atoned for his gaff in the second quarter, first recovering a fumble to snuff out a Panther drive that had advanced 69 yards in eight plays to the Tyrone 19. Six plays later, he scored on a 32-yard run to make it 22-13. The score was set up by two second-down completions from Wilson to Brockett totaling 55 yards.
“When I fumbled I was kind of upset because I knew my dad would get on me,” said Johnny Franco. “I missed a couple of tackles in the first half, too. But I just got some things together in the locker room, wait it out, and we came back and got it together.”
The Eagles were poised to score again before halftime after Doug Morrow broke into the backfield and nearly intercepted a sweep toss. He recovered the loose ball at the Penn Cambria 33, but three plays later, Wilson was picked off for just the second time this season. Dave Church’s 70-yard return set Penn Cambria up at Tyrone’s 21 with 1:01 left in the half, and after four plays Tomaselli scored again, giving the Panthers a 17-point cushion.
Tomaselli ended the game with 102 yards on 9 carries – the first 100-yard rusher against Tyrone this season.
“We played the worst half we ever played,” said Mingle. “We came back out with aggressiveness and started to attack.”
Their attack started with Mingle’s breakaway on the first series of the second half, but it didn’t end there. After forcing a Penn Cambria punt, Tyrone again went to work on the ground, driving 60 yards in seven plays – all on the ground – to make it 30-27 when Wilson faked a dive to Mingle and went around the right end for the score with 6:23 left in the third quarter.
It was a pattern that continued for the remainder of the game as Tyrone went strictly to the ground, with all of its 23 second-half plays coming by way of the run.
The Golden Eagles took their first lead of the game later in the period after crowd noise forced PC into three illegal procedure penalties on the same drive. To quell Tyrone’s momentum, Fetzer elected for a quick-kick on third down, giving the Eagles the ball at the Penn Cambria 30.
From there, it took only four plays to hit paydirt, with Mingle scoring from the 4 to give Tyrone a 33-30 lead with 3:25 left in the third quarter.
Johnny Franco then aborted one comeback attempt with his strip and run, and Shane Barr stopped another when he recovered a Cambria fumble with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter.
“We moved the ball. We just turned the football over,” Fetzer said. “You can’t do that against these guys. Twice in the second half, we could have scored. (Tyrone) made the plays. That’s what they do.”
The Eagles added their final touchdown late while trying to run out the clock. Wilson barreled through the middle of the line on a quarterback sneak and scored from 17 yards out with 20.9 seconds left on the clock.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Well, maybe this is what you need,’” coach Franco said. “Well, I’d rather not have it that way. But it really shows a lot of our character and our pride to be able to come back from a deficit like that.”
Grid Tidbits: Tyrone had not allowed 30 points in a game since 2001 in a 30-29 loss to Forest Hills in the first round of the playoffs … Wilson had gone 85 straight attempts without an interception … the Eagles outgained Penn Cambria 194-88 in the second half … Mingle’s night allowed him to become Tyrone’s 13th 1,000-yard rusher. He now has 1,103 yards and 23 touchdowns on 170 carries … Mingle’s 92-yard run was the longest at Tyrone since Jesse Jones rambled 92 yards for a score in the 1999 PIAA championship game … Wilson ended the night 6-for-10 for 113 yards … Penn Cambria finishes 6-4 … Tyrone now awaits the winner of today’s semifinal between No. 4 Bedford and No. 5 Bishop McCort.
Tyrone 47 Penn Cambria 30
Penn Cambria 22 8 0 0 – 30
Tyrone 7 6 20 14 –47
P – Tomaselli 47 run (Tomaselli run) 9:48
T – Mingle 1 run (Stotler kick) 4:14
P – Buck 65 pass from Tomaselli (Run failed) 3:12
P – Strittmatter 12 run (Holsberger run) 1:21
T – Franco 32 run (Pass failed) 4:22
P – Tomaselli 1 run (Tomaselli run) :8.5
T – Mingle 92 run (Stotler kick) 11:33
T – Wilson 5 run (Stotler kick) 6:23
T – Mingle 4 run (Kick failed) 3:25
T – Franco 75 fumble return (Stotler kick) 11:46
T – Wilson 17 run (Stotler kick) :20.9
First Downs 17 19
Yards Rushing 277 273
Pass Att.-Comp. 6-10 2-7
Pass Yards 113 77
Total Yards 390 350
Fumbles/Lost 1-1 6-4
Interceptions Thrown 1 0
Penalties/Yards 3-30 5-40
Punts/Avg. 2-40.5 2-30
Tyrone – Mingle 18-170; Franco 6-53; Wilson 8-30; Gillmen 6-24.
Penn Cambria – Tomaselli 9-102; Choros 16-75; Holsberger 11-83; White 1-10; Strittmatter 1-12; Buck 3-15; Glenn 1-1; Robine 1-0; Klayko 2-(-13); Team 1-(-12).
Tyrone – Wilson 6-10-113, 0 TD, 1 Int.
Penn Cambria – Tomaselli 2-4-77, 1 TD, 0 Int.; Klayko 0-3-0.
Tyrone – Brockett 4-98; Morrow 1-9; Barr 1-6.
Penn Cambria – Buck 1-65; Holsberger 1-12.