|Levi Reihart||Matt Murray|
It’s not quite the classic battle of wills, but when the Lewistown Panthers (1-3) visit Tyrone tomorrow night to face the undefeated Golden Eagles (4-0), it will be a contrast in offensive philosophies.
Tyrone, which strives for offensive balance under coach John Franco, has gotten it done this season mainly with the run. Behind Shayne Tate’s 569 yards, the Eagles have rushed for 924 yards for an average of 231 yards per game.
Lewistown, meanwhile, has rested their hopes for success on the arm of junior quarterback Connor Muir, who has completed 48 of 97 passes for 658 yards and six touchdowns.
So far, the results speak for themselves. While the Golden Eagles have controlled the ball and dominated teams with their defense, the Panthers have found themselves in a series of shootouts, coming up on the short end more often than not.
But that doesn’t make their vaunted passing attack any less worrisome for Franco, who said Muir is the best quarterback the Eagles have seen this season.
“He does a great job of putting the ball on the money,” Franco said. “He has a naturally instinctive arm, and that’s not something you can teach. You either have it or you don’t have it. He’s got a great feel for the game.”
That’s due in no small part to Muir’s upbringing. His father Allen is in his fourth season as the Panther’s head coach, part of his two decades of coaching experience.
“Connor spends a lot of time preparing. He watches a lot of film and does a lot of work in the summer,” said coach Muir. “He might have a deeper understanding of what we’re trying to do, probably because he’s been watching me coach since he was a little boy.”
Connor Muir and the Panthers have spread the ball around, with three receivers already over the 100-yard mark for the season. Zac Hesketh leads the team with 167 receiving yards.
His efforts haven’t been enough, however, to cover up for the Panthers’ porous defense, which is surrendering 209 rushing yards per game. Nor has it made up for Lewistown’s lack of a rushing offense of its own, as the Panthers average just 97 yards per game on the ground.
“We haven’t put together all three phases of the game for four quarters,” Muir said. “It hasn’t been a matter of effort. The players have played with a lot of effort. But we have yet to execute for a full game. It’s something we’re working very hard on.”
After last week’s 28-6 shellacking of Bald Eagle Area, Tyrone may be turning a corner in that area. Tate again rushed for 100 yards, Shane Emigh ran for two scores, and sophomore Levi Reihart completed 11 of 14 passes for 117 yards. The Eagles also limited BEA to 109 yards of total offense, completely shutting down Bald Eagles’ passing game.
“Tyrone is a team that executes very well on offense,” said Muir. “They don’t make mistakes. They run the ball very well, and they seem to be executing very well with Shayne Tate in there.”
But Tate, a wide receiver by trade, will most likely split carries this week with Johnny Franco after what father John Franco called “a good week of practice,” for the senior running back who had been out six weeks with a broken fibula.
Franco returned last week and played sparingly, eventually pulled in the first quarter when he experienced pain after cutting on a 17-yard run.
“We’ll play it by ear,” coach Franco said. “He played through the pain this week at practice and looked pretty good carrying the ball. He’s about 85 to 90 percent right now. We’re hoping he can be 90 to 95 percent by Friday.”
His emergence can only improve an offense that did fairly well in his absence, one Franco said is growing by leaps and bounds each week after beginning the season with nine new starters.
“Our offense is coming around little-by-little,” Franco said. “Last week we had just one turnover and no offensive false start penalties. That’s a big improvement. It’s always a big challenge when you have so many new players – we have nine new starters on offense from a year ago.”
In fact, Tyrone is slightly better than where it was a year ago, at least in terms of running the football. After four games in 2006, the Eagles were averaging 214 rushing yards per game, 17 yards fewer than this season.
But Reihart’s money performance a week ago gives Tyrone an added dimension at just the right time with Johnny Franco working his way back into the mix.
Time, time, time …
It’s been a while since Lewistown has beaten the Golden Eagles. How long?
The last time the Panthers defeated Tyrone, NAFTA was still a political football up for debate. The year was 1993 – the season before Franco’s arrival at Tyrone – and Lewistown rolled over the Eagles 26-7 at Mitchell Field.
Since then, Tyrone has won 13 straight over the Panthers, with five victories coming by way of shutout. Lewistown scored a single touchdown in five of the other games.
Tyrone and Lewistown have faced off 60 times since 1923, and 32 straight seasons since 1975.
This year’s game will be the first time they’ve played as members of the MAC Nittany Division. The Panthers dropped down to the small school division in the off-season after playing three years in the Seven Mountains Division.
Another drop could be in the Panther’s near future. According to Muir, Lewistown was “about 30 boys” over the limit of AA classification at last count.