|Cody Smith||Jeremy Barlett|
Tyrone coach John Franco can run down the litany of events that led to last season’s 21-10 upset at the hands of Central Cambria in the District 6 Class AA semifinals.
First there was the Eagles’ inability to produce inside the red zone. Tyrone cracked the 20-yard line three times in the first half alone and came away with only three points.
Then there was Central Cambria’s ability to make big – make that huge – plays at critical times. The Red Devils twice scored go-ahead touchdowns on plays of 65 yards or more, including the one that turned out to be the game-winner on a 65-yard screen pass from Shane McGregor to Adam Petrosky.
Lost in all of that is the fact that the game was played in Altoona, despite Tyrone having earned home field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, after a security scare closed the Tyrone Area School District for several weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. A Friday night home game at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field turned into a Saturday afternoon game at Mansion Park.
But those incidents were mere scenery on the way to a loss that still had Franco irked as he reviewed the tape in preparation for tomorrow’s rematch against No. 5 seeded Central Cambria at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field. This time, the No. 1 Eagles will get their home game, along with an opportunity to show if they’ve grown in the last 365 days.
“Our attitude is so much better,” said Franco. “That’s the biggest difference. We’ve got better leadership. It’s a harder working group, and I’m pleased with our effort. We’re definitely doing things the right way.”
The problem wasn’t that last year’s team made the ultimate mistake under the Franco Code and overlooked an opponent, like it had against United in 1998. Instead, the team imploded when personalities clashed over personnel decisions. It was something that had never happened during Franco’s tenure.
“We were embarrassed,” Franco said. “We didn’t play the brand of football Tyrone is known for.”
Now, Franco feels his team is a year older and a year wiser – not to mention a year better. And, he said, they will need to be against a squad he feels is the most talented in the AA bracket.
“It’s definitely the best team we’ve seen all year,” he said.
It’s also a team that’s getting healthy when it matters most. The Red Devils played most of the season without quarterback Jeff Wasilewski, who as a receiver last season had an 80-yard touchdown on a throwback pass in the semifinals. He broke his leg the first game this year and did not return until last week’s 14-0 win at Huntingdon in the quarterfinals.
If there were any lingering effects of his injury, they didn’t show. Wasliewski ran for one touchdown and passed for 96 yards.
“Having Jeff back helps tremendously,” said Central Cambria coach Ken Bussard. “He is an excellent athlete. He can run, throw and make good decisions. He hadn’t played quarterback since ninth grade, so he’s still in a learning mode. If he hadn’t missed so much time, we’d probably be in better shape.”
Still, Central Cambria has found success on offense, mainly because of a strong offensive line and an experienced running back in Andrew O’Saben. He leads the team in rushing with 1,521 yards on 229 carries, and he’s scored 18 touchdowns. He’s the main reason the Devils – without Wasilewski – have been able to average 28 points per game.
Wasilewski and O’Saben together make planning to stop Central Cambria tough, said Franco.
“They have a great running back in O’Saben,” he said. “But without the quarterback, we could just concentrate on stopping the run.”
“We have people who are capable of doing some things because we have an offensive line that creates some big holes,” Bussard said.
Bussard said he’ll have a pretty good feel for the direction of the game by watching how his lines on both sides of the ball perform against fronts from Tyrone that have been equally dominant. The Eagles average 258 rushing yards and 33 points per game, and they’re led by two of the more formidable backs in the District in Larry Glace (181 carries, 1,314 yards) and Mark Mingle (135 carries, 855 yards).
Defensively, the Eagles have allowed just 901 rushing yards – about 82 per game.
“They’re physical up front on both sides of the ball,” said Bussard. “I think what it boils down to is, whose line is going to win that battle? If their line sets the tone, we’re in trouble.”
On paper, Tyrone is the more balanced of the two teams. The Eagles have passed for over 1,400 yards behind quarterback Levi Reihart (84-for-130, 1,335 yards, 9 TDs), and rushed for over 2,800. Where the Red Devils have playmakers, the Eagles have them, too, like Eric Desch (25 receptions, 567 yards), Ben Ingle (20 receptions, 223 yards) and John Shaffer (20 receptions, 294 yards).
But Franco’s concern is the quickness and aggressiveness of the Devils’ defense and how it will affect Tyrone’s ability to make plays.
Central Cambria brings a strong pass rush with 28.5 sacks on the season, and is allowing just 11.5 points per game. The Devils have also forced 33 turnovers, including 23 interceptions, led by Ben Ridgeley and Marshall Lipnic, who have six each.
“Defensively, they’re very good,” Franco said. “They have a very strong defensive line, and excellent linebackers and defensive backs. They’re very tough to run or pass against.”
Bussard, who echoed sentiments that he and Franco are close both as competitors and friends, said Tyrone’s defense presents the same concerns for his own offense, saying that if you matched each team player-for-player, “it would be pretty even.”
“Our front is stronger this year. Many of the kids played last year, too,” Bussard said. “Tyrone is really a carbon copy of the things we like to do. Both of us have very strong defenses. You might be looking at a 2-0 game. I don’t know if John would like that.”
Payback can be a hefty motivating factor in the world of sports, but not so much in this game.
Both coaches dismissed the idea that there could be a personal element to the game. For Franco, it’s going to be about the Eagles proving they can compete against Central Cambria, while Bussard said these are two different teams from a year ago.
“The main reason we lost was because the Central Cambria kids kicked our butts,” said Franco. “Our kids backed down and quit. They whooped us, and our motivation is just to show that we can play with them. It might have been nice to play an easier team, but this is a game we had to play to compete and at least show we can hold our own.”
“Both squads are different,” Bussard said. “It’s a totally different season. The one big positive for us is that we’ve had to play some big playoff games on the road the last two seasons, including last week at Huntingdon. We’re very comfortable playing on the road.”