Tyrone coach John Franco just chuckled when asked the question he had to have an inkling was coming.
It’s Week 9. His Golden Eagles are playing 1-7 Penns Valley, the offense is rolling, the defense is impenetrable, and one-loss Central is waiting in the wings for a game at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field on Senior Night.
Are the Eagles (7-1, 5-1) squarely focused on the Rams, whom they’ll play tomorrow in Spring Mills in a MAC Nittany Division game?
“We don’t discuss it or talk about it,” Franco said, referring to next week’s game against the Dragons. “Our goal is to win a District championship, so we’re only concerned with the next step – and that’s Penns Valley.
“To play winning football, you can’t just turn it on and off. I think that’s getting through to the seniors on this team. Playing hard is a habit. If you don’t play hard every game, somewhere along the way, you’re going to lose.”
Franco said he would be surprised if the Eagles’ seniors didn’t have the team focused to play against the Rams, who are struggling this season, just a year removed from narrowly missing the District 6-AA semifinals in 2007.
The problem for Valley is two-fold: the Rams graduated one of their more talented senior classes last spring, and that’s left them with an inexperienced team that lacks the physical play necessary to compete week in and week out in the MAC, coach Martin Tobias said.
As a result, Valley has gone from a squad that gave Tyrone its stiffest competition over the last two seasons – losing 21-14 in 2006 before dropping a 10-3 decision last year – to one that has lost by three or more touchdowns three times this season.
“We had a group of kids that graduated that enjoyed the opportunity of competing against teams like Tyrone,” Tobias said. “They rose to the occasion and wanted to see where they measured against the best. Now, we’re not a big or physical team. That’s changing, but it has hurt us in the games we’ve lost.”
At first glance, the Rams are close to having a more respectable record, with three of their seven losses coming by four points or less, including a 13-12 loss at Central in the season-opener. They’re allowing 22 points per game, a number skewed by a 28-0 loss to St. Mary’s and a 56-28 drubbing by Clearfield.
“Defensively, they’re very sound and tough up front,” said Franco. “They have a strong defensive tradition. Marty prepares them very well defensively. Offensively, they are effective enough to allow their defense to keep them in games.”
Offense has been Valley’s sticking point the last several seasons. Last year, when they allowed just 67 points over 11 games, the Rams were knocked out of the playoffs because they could muster only six points against Central Cambria in a 1-point loss in the first round of Districts.
This season, Valley is once again averaging fewer than two touchdowns per game, despite an option attack that has Franco concerned.
“(Kody Bjalme) is a good back, and I’m concerned with how well their quarterbacks run the option,” Franco said. “They use two quarterbacks, and both run the option very well. We’ve had trouble defending that over the years.”
Bjalme leads the team with 723 yards on 127 carries. Quarterbacks Kyle Hockenberry and Tibben Zerby have combined to produce more than 400 yards on the ground.
The Rams are averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game, but it’s been easy for teams to gang up on the run – the Rams have completed only 21 passes for 213 yards.
The one-dimensional nature of Valley’s offense is a real concern for Tobias against a defense like Tyrone’s, which enters every game hoping to make team’s one-dimensional. Other concerns?
“Their team is really hitting it’s stride,” he said. “Their offensive and defensive lines have the ability to take over games. Their power running game and play action passing is a concern. Their guys up front are big, strong and mobile. We’ll be forced to play a physical game, after playing one last week (in a 14-0 loss to Bellefonte) and then playing Central Mountain next Friday. So it’s a grind for us down the stretch? Is that enough for concerns?”
Plenty. And it’s just what most Eagle opponents are feeling since the month of October began. Tyrone is averaging 32 points per game or the season, but the offense has been all but unstoppable over the last 3 weeks, when the Eagles have averaged 42 points per game.
At the same time, Tyrone has allowed just a single touchdown in each of the last three contests, and played with the lead for all but three minutes.
In the past, that kind of success has been easy to pinpoint on the Eagles’ powerful running game. And while this year, behind Larry Glace (130-933) and Mark Mingle (106-676) is no different, it’s not been a strictly run-first offense. In fact, junior quarterback Levi Reihart, who went over 1,000 yards passing last week in a 48-7 win over Lewistown, has proven himself quite capable of directing the offense with his arm. He’s thrown for over 100 yards in all but one game and been picked off only once.
Last week, with the Panthers stacked at the line of scrimmage, he opened the game with a 24-yard completion to Ben Ingle.
“The passing game is a lot further ahead than where it was a year ago,” Franco said. “Levi has been very good, but I still think he can do better. I think we can get more out of our passing game, and we’ll have to if we want to make a run in the playoffs.”
If not, Tyrone can always rely on its defense, which is as physical as ever. The Eagles have forced 13 turnovers, sacked the quarterback 17 times, and stropped 49 plays behind the line of scrimmage. Matt Murray leads the team with 7 sacks, followed closely by Dustin Weaver (6.5). Eric Desch and Ingle have combined for 7 interceptions.
HULL OF A PLAYER
Despite the rough season, Tobias has had his mood brightened by the performance of former Ram Josh Hull, a 2006 graduate and former MAC all-star who is now starting at linebacker for the undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions.
Tobias said Hull still keeps in touch with the program, and that his success is inspiring young players in the Penns Valley football system.
“It’s a thrill to see him perform well and compete. He was a kid a lot of people didn’t give much of a chance to coming out of high school. I really get a charge out of it. He’s someone our young kids can look to and see that it can be done. They also know what Josh has done to get to this point. It hasn’t been given to him. He’s made it happen. It’s a big boost to the kids in our elementary program, and our community is very proud.”