Tyrone hopes to contain Valley’s powerful offense

The Tyrone football team hasn’t had a winning season since 2015, and the Golden Eagles have lost four straight heading into Week 9.

Since 2016 they’ve lost 18 games, which gives them more losses in a 3-year span the program lost for the entirety of the 1940s.  More recently, from 2000 to 2009 the Eagles lost only 23.

These have been some lean times and there are plenty of reasons. In 2016, injuries were a real concern, as starters dropped left and right, including running back Gary Weaver, who was a threat to break 4,000 total yards for his career before going down early with a knee injury. Later, receivers Parker Mitchell and Alex Weaver spent time on the shelf, as did linebacker AJ Grassi.

In 2017 much of the problem was rooted in an offense that was headed nowhere. It was bad enough that by Week 6 the team switched quarterbacks, moving Mitchell to signal-caller and sending Denver Light to receiver. It wasn’t helped by a defense that allowed more points than any team in school history.

This season, Tyrone’s biggest thorn has been an area that for decades was a decided advantage.

Starting in 1995, when the Eagles emerged as a powerhouse on the regional football scene, the one thing Tyrone could always hang its hat on was dominance over Centre County. Each year included a swing that featured games against Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, and Bald Eagle Area. By the early 2000s Penns Valley had joined that group, and for years that meant you could book four wins before a ball was snapped.

From 1995 until this season, Tyrone claimed 82 victories over the four Centre County schools out of 85 games. Bellefonte snapped a 23-game losing streak in 2016, and Bald Eagle Area ended 25 years of futility earlier this season.

And while P-O remains mired in a decade-long funk, the other Centre County schools are enjoying a football renaissance unlike any time since the 1980s, when P-O and BEA were Big 8 powers and Bellefonte won its first District championship.

For its part, Penns Valley hasn’t been a factor in playoff football since the mid-1990s, during the early years of the tenure of Coach Marty Tobias, but even that has changed in 2018.

The Rams are 5-3 heading into Friday’s game in Spring Mills against Tyrone, and they’ve developed one of the most prolific offenses in the Mountain League, averaging more than 37 points and 410 yards per game.

What’s more, Valley has never beaten Tyrone in 17 tries dating back to a 42-6 spanking in the 1999 District 6 2A semifinals, and even though the Golden Eagles have fallen on hard times of late, their dominance over the Rams is something that still resonates with Tobias and his team.

“When you see them step on the field you know who you’re playing,” he said. “The Tyrone mystique is still alive and well. As far as we’re concerned, this is a big game. We’re not taking it lightly. We haven’t had much success against Tyrone, and our kids are aware of that.”

But there’s much more at stake for Tyrone this week than extending the longest winning streak on its slate. Instead, the Eagles are looking to extend another streak, that of qualifying for the postseason, a feat they have accomplished every season since 1995, and one that is in serious jeopardy after losing four games in a row.

“This is really like a first-round playoff game for us,” said Tyrone coach Jason Wilson. “A win could put us in a good position. A loss could keep us out. I think the seniors realize that, and they want to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Tyrone is currently No. 4 in District 6 3A, thanks to its 4-0 start. The Eagles lead No. 5 Penn Cambria by 50 points, but they’ve been losing steam ever since dropping a 31-14 decision to Bellefonte in Week 5. If they’re going to continue a postseason run that has reached 23  years, it’s going to take victories, and that’s suddenly become a much tougher proposition against the Rams.

After starting the season 1-2, Valley has won four of its last five games and is in line to qualify for the playoffs in 2A.

The big reason for their revival has been an offense as good as any in the Mountain League. It’s led by the coach’s son Aaron, a junior who just the kind of quarterback that has given Tyrone fits over the last three seasons.

Aaron Tobias has completed 63 percent of this passes (148-for-235) for 2,216 yards and 26 touchdowns.  He’s also run for 275 yards.

In other words, he’s much like Clearfield’s Isaac Rumery or Hollidaysburg’s Brady Walters or BEA’s Jaden Jones. He can extend plays with his athleticism; the difference is he is a more productive passer.

Tyrone has 10 interceptions this season, led by Damon Gripp’s six, and its secondary is as good as it’s been since Wilson’s first season in 2014, which makes for an intriguing matchup; but that doesn’t mean Aaron Tobias won’t make some throws.

“He has a good arm, but the big thing is he’s not afraid to put the ball in tight windows,” Wilson said. “On film, we’ve seen teams with a lot of good coverage on his receivers, but somehow he’s able to squeeze the ball in there. That makes him dangerous.”

Three different Rams receivers have more than 500 yards, led by Logan Snyder’s 593.

“They distribute the ball well, and they’re more of a big-play team than when we played them last year,” said Wilson. “Their offense was good last year, but they weren’t putting the ball in the end zone. This year they are.”

Coach Tobias said the difference has been simple, chalking his team’s offensive success up to maturity.

“The big thing has been experience,” he said. “Last year we were really young at the skill positions. They’ve grown up a bit, worked hard, and overcome the challenges they faced last season.”

While Coach Tobias’ son has been at the center of Valley’s offensive explosion, there’s been plenty of ball to go around. Ryan Ripka has run for almost 700 yards, and four players have scored at least five touchdowns.

That gives the Rams an ability to share the ball that has haunted Tyrone over the last four weeks. Against similar teams, teams with quarterbacks in a spread offense who can pass and run, and who present multiple weapons, the Golden Eagles have allowed 342 yards per game. Only one of those squads was held below 30 when Hollidaysburg posted 28 last week.

That makes the keys for Tyrone this week fairly straight forward: control the football, don’t get down early, respond to with points, and find some way to rattle Aaron Tobias.

  • CONTROL THE FOOTBALL

Tyrone had a solid game plan against Clearfield and Hollidaysburg, its most recent losses – run the football and utilize short passes to extend drives. In that way, even if they failed to score the Eagles would extend the game. It was plan that worked for a half each time. Tyrone was tied 7-7 with Hollidaysburg at halftime last week, and a week earlier the Bisons led just 13-7 late in the second quarter.

There were two factors at work. Against Clearfield, Light, who last week moved within 224 yards of Leonard Wilson for second place on Tyrone’s career passing list, was hot early, completing mid-range passes to Cory Lehman and Tommy Hicks to move the chains and keep the offense on the field. Last week, it was the running of Zac Albright, who rushed for 130 yards, as well as short passes to Hicks, Gripp and Logan Reader, that allowed Tyrone to sustain drives.

The Eagles will need more of that this week because Penns Valley is a threat as soon as it has the football.

A year ago, the Rams totaled 487 yards against the Eagles, and yet they lost 28-6, and Tyrone’s running game played a major role, with Brandon Loose running for 139 of the Eagles’ 192 yards on the ground. It’s a strategy as old as the game itself, but by controlling the ball, Tyrone gives itself a much better chance of springing the upset.

  • DON’T GET DOWN EARLY

The Bald Eagle Area game in Week 6 was over by the end of the first quarter. Clearfield and Holliaysburg dispatched of the Golden Eagles with explosive third quarters.

The bottom line is, Tyrone has not shown an ability to come from behind during its losing streak, although the fourth quarter against the Tigers, when the Eagles scored in the fourth quarter and recovered an on-sides kick, was a step in the right direction.

  • RESPOND WITH POINTS

Tyrone has been on the wrong end of lopsided scores of late because the Eagles’ response to scores has more often than not been punts. If ever there was a game when Tyrone had to hold serve, it’s this one.

The Golden Eagles have not answered an opponent’s touchdown with one of its own since a 38-yard run by Albright regained the lead in the second quarter of Week 5 against the Raiders.

  • RATTLE TOBIAS

While Aaron Tobias is putting up incredible numbers this season, it’s not his first trip to the dance. As a sophomore he passed for more than 1,400 yards in nine games, and he was hot against the Golden Eagles.

However, Tyrone won because they were able to incrementally get to him in a variety of ways. The Eagles sacked him once. They picked him off twice. They stymied him in the red zone.

He still completed 30 of 49 passes for 336 yards, but the actual damage was small.

It’s unlikely Tyrone will shut him down this season, but  they are built to touch him up more than a year ago, with pass rushers like Braeden Nevling-Ray (7 sacks), Kyle SIlva, Lehman and Aric Reader applying pressure.

Tyrone’s secondary, with four solid coverage players, is in much better shape than it was in 2017.

So keeping the play in front and allowing time for pressure to arrive and for high school players to make high school mistakes will be essential.

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