|Jeremy Barlett||Jared Templeton|
Game-planning is the ultra-prepared John Franco’s specialty. It’s one of the reasons you can count on one hand the number of times the Golden Eagles have been beaten by more than two touchdowns in the more than 170 games that he has coached at Tyrone.
So when pressed on how his team would ready itself for what would certainly be its most challenging game of the season tomorrow against Indian Valley what was the mastermind’s strategy?
“Pray a lot,” Franco said in a tongue in cheek moment.
But funny as it may sound, that’s the only option most teams have had against the versatile Warriors this season. At 6-1 and atop the Seven Mountains Division standings, Valley has scored 30 or more points four times this season, and done it with a versatility that has been unmatched at Indian Valley. Quarterback Jarrett Kratzer has completed 61 of 117 passes for 1,023 yards, while running back Thad Rosenberry has piled up 653 yards and 12 touchdowns on 82 carries. The Warriors have three players with over 250 receiving yards and five players with at least two touchdowns.
In short, it’s enough talent to bring Franco to his knees, Rosary beads in hand.
“It’s the best Indian Valley team I’ve seen,” he said. “This is probably the first time we’ve been the underdog at home, and they deserve it. They’ve beaten some good teams. But we like that. We like being the underdog.”
It’s hard to imagine a 7-0 team that is ranked in the top 10 in Class AA by all of the state’s top polls and riding a 30-game regular-season winning streak being the dog in a home game, but if Vegas put a line on tomorrow’s game, that’s probably be about right. The Warriors have the edge on Tyrone in every area, from experience to size, from speed to skill players.
But Franco’s not ready to concede just yet.
“We’ll give it a shot,” Franco said. “It will be difficult, but we have a pretty good defense. We’ll battle. The thing for us will be to read our keys, to get aligned correctly, and to play hard. Our guys have to beat the man across from them.”
If anything, the Eagles know Valley is not invincible. The Warriors are coming off their first loss of the season a week ago to Clearfield, 19-13. It was a game where Kratzer managed to complete just 6 of 25 passes, and one in which IV coach Gawen Stoker said the Warriors were simply outplayed.
“We ran into a team that performed very well,” Stoker said. “They did more things right than we did. Clearfield has a nice team, but we’ll rebound, and we’ll be fine.”
The key to Valley’s success has been its ability to spread the ball around to its talented skill players. Kratzer and Rosenberry, along with receivers Jay Hartman (29 receptions for 413 yards), Austin Long (14 receptions for 282 yards) and Zach Mannino (7 receptions for 252 yards) are the main cogs in a big-play offense that is averaging over 28 points per game and scores points quickly.
“Balance is critical for what we want to do,” Stoker said. “We anticipated having a balanced attack this year.”
“These guys have so many athletes,” Franco said, “it’s amazing there are enough footballs to go around.”
That’s one reason why Franco said a ball control offense will be in the Golden Eagles’ favor.
“We need to keep the ball out of their hands,” he said. “We told the guys already this week, our offensive line has to control the game. The more our offense is on the field, the less time their playmakers are on the field. But time of possession isn’t the only key because they have so many big plays and can score so quickly.”
Tyrone has shown it can eat up clock with the run and it’s confident enough in its defense to put a game in its hands.
Shayne Tate went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark last week in the same game that the Eagles limited Philipsburg-Osceola’s high-octane offense to two scores.
“They move people around on defense,” Stoker said. “The big thing is they all move well and tackle well. They give you a number of different looks.”
Franco said it will also be important to continue to play error-free football. In their 14-13, last-second win over the Mounties, Tyrone went without a penalty or a turnover, giving them two straight games without a pre-snap offensive penalty.
“When you have zero turnovers and zero penalties, it’s pretty hard to lose that game,” Franco said.
But in the end, it boils down to a match up of the MAC’s best offense against its best defense.
“Tyrone’s kids are disciplined and they believe they can win,” said Stoker. “That’s a heck of a combination for an opponent.”
Tomorrow’s game is reminiscent of the Eagles’ first two games against the Warriors under Franco. In 1994, Tyrone needed a win against Valley in its home finale to clinch a share of the Big 8 championship, but Valley dominated the Eagles in a 15-0 victory.
A year later, Tyrone was on the verge of its first unbeaten regular season in almost 50 years when the Warriors pulled off a stunning 13-7 upset at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field.
Since then, Tyrone is 10-1 against the Warriors.