|The struggle for the No. 5 seeded Red Devils (8-3) against No. 1 Tyrone (10-0) starts where it does for most teams that roll into Gray-Veterans Memorial Field in late-October and November. The game is against the 2007 Golden Eagles, but often teams have to first defeat the ghosts of Tyrone teams past.
If the Devils can get past that much unscathed, their District 6-AA semifinal game tomorrow against the Golden Eagles seems much more manageable.
“Our number one challenge is battling Tyrone’s tradition,” said Central Cambria coach Ken Bussard. “They’ve been one of the top dogs for a while. They’re extremely well coached and they’re scrappy.”
It hasn’t happened often, but there are teams that have shaken off the bugaboo of playing Tyrone at home for the right to play for the championship. In 1998, United showed little regard for Tyrone’s rankings or its District 6 preeminence in a shockingly easy 20-0 win. Two seasons ago, Bishop McCort dealt one of the most talented teams in the John Franco era a 23-20 loss in overtime, knocking a top-five team out of the postseason with no hopes of defending its title.
But such wins are easier conjured than claimed, just as it’s easier, Franco said, to plan to stop the Red Devils’ prolific offense than to actually halt it.
“They remind me a lot of us, especially last year’s team,” Franco said. “They make big plays down the field, and they can run it or throw it any time they want.”
When Franco watches Central Cambria on film, it’s like watching a tape of his own team from 2006, he said. And that was a pretty good team.
But more than some metaphysical battle against bygone teams, tomorrow’s game is the ultimate match up for those who subscribe to the boxing theory that styles make fights. It will be Central Cambria’s big-play passing offense against Tyrone’s hounding defense, which has come up with 22 interceptions this season.
It will be Tyrone’s rugged running game against a Red Devil defense that swarms to the football. It’s a unit led by 6-foot-2, 210-pound defensive end Mitch Blackwell, who leads the team with 16 sacks. To put that figure into perspective, the Golden Eagles have 19 sacks to their credit this season, and they are generally regarded as the best defense in the MAC Nittany Division.
It will be, as Franco is fond of saying, strength on strength, my guy against your guy.
“They’re a great team, and they’re hot right now,” Franco said. “This isn’t coach-speak or clichés. We have our work cut out for us because this is the best team we’ve seen so far.”
The Red Devils are coming off a 7-6 victory over Penns Valley in the first round, and they’re led by senior quarterback Shane McGregor, who has completed 97 of 179 passes for 1,539 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has spread the ball out to eight different receivers who have 5 or more receptions this season, including three who have more than 300 yards.
“He’s a great deep thrower, and he has receivers who are fast and catch the ball well,” Franco said. “It’s tough to stop them because they have so many weapons.”
Central Cambria is averaging 24.2 points and 262 yards per game.
“It’s not necessarily by design,” Bussard said. “We’re two-deep at our skill positions and anyone can make a play. It’s not a 1 or 2-man offense.”
Franco said the key will be limiting the Devils’ opportunities for big plays, of which there have been many.
“I saw them in their game against Somerset and they had six plays of 40 yards or more,” said Franco. “Teams that have beaten them have been able to control the big play.”
Beating them will take a game plan similar to that employed in Tyrone’s 24-21 win over Class AAA finalist Indian Valley – control the clock and keep Central Cambria’s playmakers out of the offensive mix.
“On offense, we have to be able to pick up blitzes and run the ball,” Franco said. “We have to be able to run the ball.”
Moving the ball on the ground hasn’t yet been a problem for Tyrone. Led by Shayne Tate’s 1,479 yards on 196 carries, Tyrone is averaging 220 yards rushing a game with 22 rushing touchdowns. And the Eagles’ passing game, behind sophomore Levi Reihart’s 730 yards, has slowly come around to the point where it can hurt teams that stack up against Tyrone’s run.
“Their scheme is very effective,” Bussard said. “They’ve got a quality tailback. Tyrone definitely wants to run the ball, but their quarterback and receivers are capable of hurting you deep. We have to be sound in our assignments and not break.”
Tyrone demonstrated that much last week in its 14-0 win over Westmont-Hilltop, a team that beat Central Cambria 21-7 in Week 9. In the same game that Reihart and leading receiver Shayne Emigh connected on a highlight reel 39-yard pass that ended with Emigh belly-flopping onto the turf for a diving reception, the Eagles also got a touchdown on a 6-yard pass to tight end Johnny Shaffer that demonstrated Reihart’s growing patience and touch.
Tyrone’s ability to make plays on both sides of the ball could be enhanced further this week as Johnny Franco becomes more a part of Tyrone’s offense. He played only seven offensive plays last week in his first full game back since suffering a broken leg in August, but he played the entire game on defense, nearly coming up with two interceptions.
“We’ve added a good player to a group that’s already very good,” coach Franco said of his son’s defensive performance. “It’s hard to take anything away from anyone else because it’s a group that was 9-0 before he played a full game. But he does allow us to rotate more people and stay fresh.”
One thing Tyrone will have to avoid, Franco said, will be a rash of pre-snap penalties like it endured last week against the Hilltoppers when the Eagles were flagged seven times on motion or procedure penalties.
“We had 66 plays and 59 were just fine. If you can do 59 right, you can do 66,” Franco said. “There’s no excuse for it.”