|Nick Wilson||Brandon Gehret|
The past time Tyrone and Punxsutawney hooked up, it was a special day for the Tate family.
Playing in a downpour that helped to account for seven total turnovers, Terry Tate, a sophomore starting on the defensive line, recovered a fumble in the end zone late in the game to help ice a 20-12 victory that locked up a first-round home game in the District 6 playoffs for the Golden Eagles.
Over the next two seasons, the accolades would pour in for Tate, who was a two-time All-State defensive lineman and the 2004 Pennsylvania Football News Defensive Player of the Year. But he would never again taste the end zone.
His brother Shayne, the leading rusher in the MAC Nittany Division, is hoping to cross the goal line a couple times himself tomorrow night, when the Golden Eagles return to LeMarca Stadium in Punxsutawney for a non-divisional game against the Woodchucks (7 p.m.).
The game will be will be a contrast of opposites. Tyrone enters 5-0 and riding the crest of its two best offensive games of the season in wins over Bald Eagle Area and Lewistown, teams the Eagles defeated by a combined 63-6. The ‘Chucks, meanwhile, are 0-5, and they haven’t scored more than a single touchdown in a game in three weeks.
But that doesn’t mean Tyrone isn’t preparing for them like they would a playoff opponent, nor are the Eagles looking past Punxsy to their headline game against Philipsburg-Osceola next week.
“If our kids don’t respect our opponent, then they’re stupid,” Franco said. “We only play one game a week, and you either get better or worse. As young as we are, if we’re not getting better, we’re not going to achieve our goals.”
In fact, the ‘Chucks are just the kind of team that could give Tyrone a run for its money. They’ve got a massive offensive line (three of their front five go 290, 275 and 265), and they run a multiple offense with enough different sets to make preparing for them a challenge. They also defend well against the inside run, which through five games has been the Eagles’ biggest strength.
The problem for Punxsy has been converting inside 25-yard line.
“We don’t move the ball badly, but we can’t seem to find the end zone when we get into the green zone, from the 25 and in,” said Punxsutawney coach Blake Moilan. “We do silly things. We have a lot of young kids up front and a lot of inexperienced players in key areas. We actually have a lot of players playing on Friday who should be playing on Mondays (junior varsity).”
“I’m amazed they’re 0-5,” Franco said. “I watched their tape against Huntingdon from last week (a 20-6 Bearcat victory), and they moved the ball up and down the field. But they haven’t been able to make the big play. They get in the red zone and then, boom – they have a sack, or they put the ball on the ground.”
The red zone, where the Eagles are scoring at a 70 percent clip, hasn’t been a problem Tyrone, but neither has scoring in general over the last two weeks. Part of that has been a side effect of playing two of the worst defenses in the Nittany Division, but it’s also a credit to an offense that is beginning to develop an identity despite playing without its leading rusher from 2007 or starting a sophomore at quarterback.
In the absence of Johnny Franco, who will miss this week’s game but is still labeled week-to-week by coach Franco, Tyrone is leading the division in rushing with 1,142 yards for an average of 228 yards per game. That figure is due in no small part to Tate, the division’s leading rusher by nearly 250 yards.
After switching from receiver to running back at the start of the season, Tate has eclipsed 100 yards every game and currently stands at 704 yards and four touchdowns on 91 carries.
“He’s such a versatile athlete,” coach Franco said. “When Johnny got hurt, I told him I was thinking about moving Tate back there and he said he thought that would be a great move because he’s such a good athlete. He would be great no matter where you put him.”
“Tate has done a really good job filling in,” Moilan said. “He’s tough to stop.”
Franco gave credit for Tate’s success to his emerging offensive line, which he credited for “getting better every week. They still make mistakes, but they’re mistakes of hustle and effort, and I can live with that.”
Levi Reihart deserves some of the credit, as well. After the Eagles’ offense went stagnant in the second half against Penns Valley in Week 3, a 10-3 win, Reihart stepped up his game at quarterback to open up the offense and create opportunities outside the running game.
That in turn improved the running game. In the last two weeks, Reihart has completed 15 of 21 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, and Tyrone has improved its season-high point total in each, rushing for five touchdowns.
With his young offensive line, Moilan can relate to some of Tyrone’s growing pains. He can also relate to losing a top rusher to injury. Mike Smiley was the ‘Chucks’ best running back through two weeks – a close loss to DuBois and a 48-21 loss to Hollidaysburg – but he went down with an injury in Week 2, and Punxsy’s offense hasn’t been the same since.
“We basically had to find a new identity,” Moilan said.
Andrew Furman has rushed for 226 yards in Smiley’s place, while also pulling in 12 receptions for 190 yards.
Despite their problems, Moilan said the ‘Chucks are approaching their game against Tyrone with confidence.
“They’re the No. 4 team in the state, and that’s a challenge,” he said. “I told the team you can either go hide in the corner or play football. Hopefully, we’ll play football.”
For the second straight week, Johnny Franco looked like the running back that rushed for over 1,600 yards a year ago when he was able to go north and south against Lewistown. But when he was forced to plant and cut on his left leg, he was hobbled.
He left last week’s game after two series and finished the game on crutches.
Coach Franco said it’s a mystifying situation because the broken fibula he suffered in preseason is completely healed. The problem now is swelling inside the bone.
Franco is going to Pittsburgh today to have the injury looked at by a doctor who works with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The doctors here have been outstanding,” said coach Franco. “Dr. Port and Drayer have done a tremendous job. The swelling in the bone makes it extremely painful. People have told us it could be better in a week or it could drag on for months. You just don’t know.”
Franco said the uncertainty of his son’s playing status has affected the team, but he credited them for playing well despite the situation.
“I have to give the guys a lot of credit for pulling it together,” he said.
Beginning with a 35-13 win over Bellefonte on Oct. 8, 2004, the Tyrone football team has won 28 straight regular season games. The Golden Eagles school record is 29 straight wins, a streak that was ended when Bellwood-Antis defeated Tyrone 15-0 in the opening game of the 1949 season. With a win on Friday, the current edition of the Orange and Black will tie that mark, setting up the opportunity to set a new record next week at Gray-Vets Memorial Field against archrival Philipsburg-Osceola. Those two squads are the only teams in Tyrone football history to compile back-to-back undefeated seasons. The Eagles began the original streak in 1946 and were undefeated in both 1947 and 1948. The current Eagles put together undefeated marks in 2005 and 2006.