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Battle of top defenses highlights Tyrone/Penns Valley contest

Brock Anders Josh Bradley

A year later, you can see why Tyrone might not been at the top of its game last October, when the Eagles squeaked by Penns Valley 21-14 in Spring Mills.
Tyrone was nearing the end of a long regular season where blowouts were the norm, even against the best opponents. The Rams didn’t appear to fit into that category, but there was one on the horizon in once-beaten Johnstown a week later.
Then there was the weather. The game was played in a steady rain that made passing the football – the Eagles’ forte in 2006 – nearly impossible.
When you combine that with Penns Valley’s slim playoff hopes, which teetered on whether or not they could dethrone the Eagles, you could see an upset just waiting to happen.
But it didn’t.
Thanks to Johnny Franco’s career-high 222 yards and three touchdowns, Tyrone was able to leave Centre County with its unbeaten season intact, but the residual effects of that game could well be on display at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field tonight when Penns Valley visits in a MAC Nittany Division game.
That game, according to Rams coach Martin Tobias, helped to lay the groundwork for what Valley has grown into over the first two weeks of 2007: an undefeated football team with a dominant defense that’s playing with confidence.
“In the off-season, it helped to motivate the kids,” Tobias said. “I think they realized how sound a football game they played. In that game, I think they learned to trust each other. It brought them together as a group, and that helped them during off-season workouts.”
How good is the Rams’ defense? Try these numbers:
Through two games they’ve allowed just 105 total yards, only 11 of which have come on the ground.
They’ve also forced seven turnovers, three of which led to scores.
In the Nittany Division, they’re one of only two teams that is yet to surrender a point.
The other, of course, is Tyrone, whose defense has been every bit as formidable as Valley’s. The Eagles have given up just 134 yards and their opponents have penetrated their 20-yard line only twice.
Something has to give.
“This is one of the top defenses we’ll see,” said Tyrone coach John Franco. “They have a veteran unit back with nine of 11 kids who started or played a lot against us in our game last year. It’s a complete defense, and they play a 4-3 as well as anyone.”
Tobias said it’s the group’s cohesion that has contributed most to its success.
“Our players have been playing well as a unit. We don’t have just one player who you would say is a difference maker,” said Tobias. “It’s just an entire unit coming together.”
Some stand out, like 6-6 defensive end Matt Johnson – a four-year starter – and linebacker Ty Corl, whose sack of Tyler Golden last season led to a fumble he returned for a score to give Valley the lead in the second quarter.
Corl is one of three returning starters at linebacker for the Rams, a group Franco said is “one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.”
Valley’s defense has done more than keep the Rams in games. It’s also been the catalyst for the team’s anemic offense. The Rams average just 8.5 points per game and last week accumulated just 64 yards of total offense in a 10-0 win over Bald Eagle Area.
However, they’ve won because their defense has put the offense in a position to be successful. In Week 1 against Central, an interception by Cody Stover set up Valley’s only score, and set the stage for a dramatic goal-line stand when the Rams turned the Dragons away on four plays inside the 5.
Last week, a botched BEA punt and a fumble led to a touchdown and a field goal.
“We know how good they are,” Franco said. “Our kids have talked about it for a long time – how tough they were going to be this season. They’ve really come together and they present quite a challenge. We know that.”
Another thing Franco knows is that his own defense is pretty good, too. Through two games, it has stopped 13 plays in the opponents’ backfield and allowed just eight first downs.
What’s not as apparent is how good the offense is, or how good it could be. For the third straight game, running back Johnny Franco will watch from the sidelines, out with a broken left fibula that is making progress, according to coach Franco, but not enough to risk further injury by playing.
If things go as smoothly as they have in wins over Bellwood-Antis and Huntingdon, that may not be a problem. In Johnny Franco’s absence, Tyrone’s ground game has been as potent as ever, churning out 555 yards and four touchdowns.
Shayne Tate has been a major reason why. After shifting to running back from wide receiver one day before the season-opener, Tate followed up a 120-yard performance in Week 1 with 204 yards on 24 carries last week in an 18-0 win over Huntingdon.
Junior Mark Mingle also eclipsed the 100-yard mark against the ‘Cats.
“Our offensive line fired off the ball and blocked well,” said Franco. “The foundation is there. Now we’ve got to get the other things in order. We have to execute.”
Some of the other things might include turnovers. Tyrone committed three last week, more than in any single game in 2006.
It might also include the passing game. Sophomore Levi Reihart, after passing for 92 yards in Week 1, threw two interceptions against Huntingdon and completed just two passes for 17 yards.
“Levi is making progress,” Franco said. “A lot of times we weren’t doing a good job of running pass patterns, and that involves sharper routes and quicker reads. We’re getting there, but not at the rate I would like to see.”
Despite the kinks, Tobias is still impressed.
“In watching them on film, their running game, the formations they work from—they’re sound,” said Tobias. “The quarterback will continue to get better, and even though he’s had some growing pains, he’s a playmaker. So you can’t just focus on one facet of their game. Even without Johnny Franco, they’re firing on all cylinders.”
Quarterback Struggles
If Reihart has had growing pains as a sophomore, it’s nothing compared to the struggles of Johnson, who has started at quarterback for the Rams since he was a sophomore, with mixed results at best.
He’s thrown for just over 400 yards each of the last two seasons. He’s also thrown for more than 10 interceptions each of those seasons.
This year, Johnson has completed 3 of 15 passes for 10 yards.
“He’s a strong senior leader and a great kid,” Tobias said. “We rely on him so much on defense. He’s so good on that side of the ball. If he could have focused more on being a good quarterback, you might have seen him progress more.”
Silver Lining
Franco said he saw some positives in the injury that has kept his son on the sidelines since the second week of camp.
“I’m hoping this makes the team better,” he said. “A lot of people were expecting to see Johnny be the big leader. Every game we’ve won without him has been a big boost for the team psychologically. Other people have stepped up. Hopefully, when he comes back, it will really give us the boost to do some things.”