When Jack Krider was coaching at Central, he and John Franco locked horns for some of the classic games in Tyrone football lore.
Unfortunately for Krider – one of the classiest coaches to come out of the old Big 8 Conference – the Dragons were always on the wrong end.
There was the Eagles 14-6 win over Central in 1994, Franco’s first season at Tyrone, when the Dragons came to the borough undefeated and unscored upon. A second-half touchdown by Brady Naylor on a broken option play was the difference.
In 1996, both teams were undefeated when the Dragons again came to Tyrone. In a game that ultimately decided the Big 8 championship, Tyrone jumped to a 24-0 lead on its way to a 31-8 victory, behind 175 yards by Marcus Owns.
A year later, Tyrone traveled to Roaring Spring for a game that once again served as the de facto conference championship game. Central quarterback Christian Bridenbaugh passed for more than 200 yards, but it was the Golden Eagles that came away with a 38-14 win. Mark Wyland ran for 100 yards and three touchdowns, and Blair County was introduced to a running back named Jesse Jones.
In the decade since, Central has jumped conferences twice, rejoined Tyrone in the MAC, and changed coaches, with A.J. Hoenstine taking over four years ago. But it won’t be until tomorrow night, when the 8-1 Dragons visit Gray-Veterans Memorial Field to play the 8-1 Golden Eagles, that the game will matter the way it did in the mid-1990s.
To the winner goes the No. 1 seed in the District 6-AA playoffs. The loser could drop as far as 3 or 4, pending the outcome of other games involving playoff teams.
“It’s like the old days again,” said Franco. “It’s kind of nostalgic and it is kind of like when Jack had those good teams in the 1990s.”
For the Eagles, it’s the most meaningful game they’ve played this late in the season since the start of this decade, when a couple sub-par seasons in 2001 and 2002 had Tyrone scrambling in late October just to make the postseason.
For Central, the upstart that has turned around a 4-6 season a year ago, it’s a chance to prove itself on a big stage.
“It definitely is (a chance to prove ourselves),” said Hoenstine. “We’re the underdogs, and we’ll have to play our best game of the year. We’ll have to go toe-to-toe with the best team we’ve faced so far. I have a lot of confidence in our kids, but we’re going to have to be mentally prepared as much as physically. Tyrone has a lot of talent, offensively and defensively. They will make plays, but we have to limit them.”
Along with Clearfield, Central may be the only other team on Tyrone’s schedule capable of making plays with the Golden Eagles. Behind quarterback Derek Forshey and running back Lucas Runk, the Dragons are averaging 311 yards and 30 points per game. They’ve scored 40 or more points three times, and the only blemish on their record, like the Eagles, is a loss to the Bisons in Clearfield.
“We had a lot of kids coming back that worked really hard last year. The guys worked very hard over the summer and in the weight room, and each year, they’ve progressed,” said Hoenstine. “We had never had a game before we could hang our hats on to know we were a good team before this season. Now, the kids have come together, and they go into every game expecting win.”
Runk allows the Dragons to play with that kind of confidence. The sophomore has rushed for 1,106 yards on 154 carries, caught 17 passes for 356 yards, and scored 16 touchdowns. In last week’s 28-27, come-from-behind win at St. Mary’s, Runk scored a touchdown to put Central ahead with 3:09 left on a hook-and-lateral play, passed to Shane Cafferty for the decisive 2-point conversion, and had an interception late to snuff a Dutchmen drive.
“He’s an incredible talent,” Franco said. “He’s got great running instincts to go along with his speed and quickness. He has all the qualities of a great running back, and he’ll probably be an All-State running back someday. He can take a game over.”
As good as Runk has been, it’s been Forshey’s development that has allowed the Dragons to open their offense up in the second half of the season with more and more teams gearing to stop the run game.
Forshey has completed 56 of 118 passes for 990 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s thrown for over 200 yards twice, and it was his arm, as much as anything else, that sealed Central’s win last week over the Dutchmen. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns.
“Derek Forshey has really come into his own at quarterback,” Hoenstine said. “He gets better every week with his reads. We put a lot on the quarterback, and he has really been willing to learn. He’s a kid who has had three surgeries in his high school career. In fact, he just had knee surgery after last baseball season. I’m really happy to see him have success.”
Forshey had three touchdown passes longer than 50 yards against St. Mary’s, prompting Franco to put him in some elite company when offering an assessment of the senior quarterback.
“He’s the best we’ve seen since (Clearfield’s Jarrin Campman)” Franco said. “He can run and pass, and he can throw the deep ball better than anyone we’ve faced. He’s just a great deep passer.”
Central’s prolific offense creates an interesting match-up, because Tyrone has been able to score a point or two this season, as well. The Eagles enter the game averaging 390 yards and 33 points per game, after scoring more than 40 points in four of their last five.
Tyrone has its own 1,000-yard rusher in Larry Glace, who eclipsed the mark last week in a 42-0 win over Penns Valley, and another runner close behind in Mark Mingle, who despite carrying the ball just once in two games midway through the season after suffering a toe ailment has managed to gain 710 yards and score 13 touchdowns.
The Eagles also have a 1,000-yard passer in junior Levi Reihart, who passed for 171 yards and two touchdowns last week, both of them going to Eric Desch, one of three receivers with double-digit receptions and more than 100 yards.
“You can’t key on one guy with them,” Hoenstine said. “We’d like to stop the run, but Reihart is a nice quarterback who’s gotten a lot better, and they have some nice receivers. They have two outstanding backs and (John) Shaffer is one of the top tight ends in the conference. They really have no weak points, but we don’t think we have too many either.”
On the outside, the game has all the makings of a shootout, but neither coach wants to see that happen.
“I hope it doesn’t turn out that way,” said Hoenstine. “I’d like to think we can control the ball enough that it won’t come to that. But it could very well be a shootout. Tyrone hasn’t given up many points this season, except in the Clearfield game. If you combine all of their other games, they probably haven’t given up as many as they did in that one game. They have an outstanding defense, so we’re going to have to find ways to put points on the board.”
If Central can play ball-control offense, that could cause problems for the Eagles, who go into the game with a plan to keep the Dragons’ offense on the sidelines.
“I’m never comfortable when the game is back-and-forth. That might be fun for the fans, but not the coaches,” said Franco. “We’ve got to keep their offense off the field, because they can score in bunches. Their ability to make big plays keeps you on edge.”
If the game would come down to making a play or two on defense, Tyrone may have the edge. The Eagles are allowing just over 7 points per game, winning three times by shutout, while limiting every team but Clearfield to a single touchdown or less. Six of Tyrone’s nine opponents have failed to gain more than 150 yards.
Central, meanwhile, is allowing almost 20 points per game, although Hoenstine said his defensive unit is beginning to understand its roles.
“They’re really improving,” he said. “We start eight underclassmen on that side of the ball, but guys are starting to understand their roles. Our defense has to be huge this week. We’ll have to be able to bend, but not break.”
Tomorrow is also Senior Night for the Golden Eagles, and Franco said few teams he’s coached have ever matured like this year’s senior class has from freshmen year until now.
Back then, Franco said, the Class of 2009 was the first team he ever had to pay a visit to after a junior high game and “read the riot act” to because of their poor behavior. Most people pegged the class as a 5-5 club at best by this point in its development, most notable Franco.
“I really chewed them out and I didn’t think most of them would come out the next year,” he said. “I told the coaches, we better look at the next group coming up. But they all came out, and after a while I said, some of these kids have some talent. They just need to learn how to work. Now, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a class come through that’s worked harder than this one.”
Several key players, like Matt Murray and John Shaffer have started since their sophomore season, bringing the Class of 2009’s career regular-season record, so far, to 27-1.
Chances are good Clearfield will win the Nittany Division title in 2008, despite Tyrone and Central sharing the same 6-1 conference record at this point. The Bisons beat both teams, giving them the tie-breaker edge.
However, if Clearfield loses to St. Mary’s, the winner of tomorrow’s Tyrone-Central game will take the crown.