One win away

Eagles face Penn Cambria at home in semifinals

It’s hard to imagine the Tyrone football team doing much more than it has done this season.

Sure, there was that Week 6 loss to Bald Eagle Area where the Eagles turned the ball over three times – including a pick-6 – in a 6-point loss. Certainly they would have rather avoided the kind of blowouts they suffered against teams like Bellwood-Antis and Juniata Valley.

But at the end of the day, Tyrone managed to right the ship in the month of October and win 3 of 4 to earn the No. 2 seed in the District 6 3A playoffs. That means Friday’s game against No. 3 Penn Cambria is a home game, to be decided at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field. On the line is a chance to return to Mansion Park for a second straight season to play for a District title.

Considering the Eagles were 1-3 near the end of September and 2-4 following the loss to BEA, a first-round home game seems nothing short of miraculous.

But this is also something Tyrone coach John Franco hinted to when he was contemplating the upcoming season three months ago. His team, he said, was young, with very few players returning with starting experience. There would be some growing pains, and the key would be to make improvement every week.

“Our whole year has been to build on each week and to get better,” Franco said after the Eagles’ 28-14 win over St. Mary’s last Friday. “What a difference between now and Week 1 and 2. We really expected this development to happen, but when you’re going through it, it’s one of those things where you’d think with all of the experience I have that I’d be pretty cool and calm with it, but I’m not. I’m the most impatient person around.”

The kind of gains he was looking for weren’t always immediately apparent, but when October hit, a switch flipped for the Golden Eagles. Clearly, a healthy portion of the credit goes to Tyrone’s rejuvenated offense. Starting in Week 7, when freshman Ashton Walk assumed the full-time role as the Eagles’ quarterback, things began to change. Since then, Tyrone is averaging more than 28 points per game and Walk, in three-and-a-half games as the starter, has passed for more than 1,000 yards.

Ashton Walk has thrown for more than 1,000 yards in three-and-a-half games as Tyrone’s starter. (Terry McCaulley photo)

Other players saw their productivity increase, as well. In that time Cortlynd Rhoades has caught 19 passes and now leads the team with more than 400 receiving yards. Corrie Beck, once a secondary option out of the backfield, has added 15 receptions since Walk’s insertion and is now second on the team with 340 yards. Ross Gampe has added 16 catches.

Even Tyrone’s much maligned ground game has seen an improvement, averaging 87.5 yards per game since Week 7, doubling its meager production through Week 6.

So even though the 3A field is noticeably thin, even though Tyrone got its .500 season split with a bizarre win over St. Mary’s where the Dutch pulled their starters in the final quarter, one would be hard-pressed to say the Eagles backdoored their way into the No. 2 spot.

Penn Cambria, on the other hand, might feel otherwise. The Panthers had been locked into the No. 2 position for most of the season, even during a slide that saw them go 1-4 during the month of October, losing their final four games. Had the Golden Eagles lost to St. Mary’s last week, Penn Cambria would have maintained its standing, and while the Panthers would have still faced Tyrone in the semis, the game would have been played in Cresson. That made the Flying Dutch’s decision to insert their jayvees with the score tied quite pertinent to anyone supporting the Black and Blue.

But even without the strange substitutions, the Panthers had been headed in the wrong direction for weeks. Penn Cambria started the season with four straight wins before losing to Central, the No. 1 team in 3A, in Week 5. Though they rebounded with a win the following week over Central Cambria, it’s been downhill since. They were forced to forfeit a game to Richland in Week 7 and the lost 3 in a row on the field, averaging 9.3 points per game over the final three weeks.

But the declining numbers don’t change the fact that the Panthers are a dangerous team when they have the football, especially when quarterback Garrett Harrold is feeling good. With more than 1,150 yards passing and 1,045 yards rushing, he’s the kind of dual threat quarterback that has given Tyrone’s defense fits for years. One year ago, when the teams played in the 2020 semifinals in Tyrone, he passed for 192 yards and ran for a pair of touchdowns.

Garrett Harrold has run and passed for more than 1,000 yards in 2021. (Terry McCaulley photo)

Harrold has spread the ball around to six different receivers with more than 100 yards in receptions, led by Zach Groves’ 388 yards on 26 receptions.

In games this season against other dual threat quarterbacks, Tyrone has struggled, though in most cases it was with their ability as runners. Juniata Valley’s Lambert Palmer ran for 117 yards; Clearfield’s Oliver Billotte had 86. Hollidaysburg’s Jake McGinnis ran for 97 and threw for 115.

And though Harrold is one of the top young quarterbacks in the District, make no mistake: the Panthers are a running team. In nine games on the field, Penn Cambria has rushed for 2,023 yards for an average of 225 per game.

It’s a strength that will put the spotlight squarely on Tyrone’s growth in defending the run. That’s an area that has been a struggle for the Golden Eagles, who are allowing more than 158 yards per game on the ground. Tyrone has faced some good passers – Lambert, Billotte, BEA’s Carson Nagle, McGinnis. Tyrone’s secondary has been up to the challenge on most occasions, and a pass rush that features the hard-charging Gampe (4 sacks), Zac LeGars (4 sacks) and Jake Johnson (3 sacks), has produced 15 sacks.

It’s been enough that the good teams that have found themselves in a tussle with the Eagles have more often than not abandoned their passing game and instead run right at Tyrone’s defense. When Clearfield led Tyrone by just a touchdown at halftime, the Bisons went the entire second half without passing and won 42-12. When BEA trailed the Eagles 9-7 in the fourth quarter, they turned the game over to running back Garrett Burns, who had 101 yards on the the Bald Eagles’ final two series.

Penn Cambria has struggled against the run, as well, particularly over the final three weeks of the regular season, when the Panthers allowed 223 yards per game. They also haven’t faced a passer quite like Walk in that time, or a team that mixes the run and pass quite like Tyrone. In the last three weeks, the Panthers’ opponents have thrown the ball only 22 times (Walk had 21 attempts in last week’s game against St. Mary’s).

The game marks the fourth time Tyrone and Penn Cambria have played each other, and all of the previous games have come in the postseason. Tyrone leads the series with a 4-0 record.

The teams first faced off in 2005 at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field, with the Panthers storming to a 30-13 lead over No. 1 Tyrone before the Eagles scored 34 unanswered points in the second half to win 47-30. Tyrone won 37-6 in 2010 and 39-6 in 2011.

Last season, Matthew Clifton and Gampe combined to sack Harrold five times in a 20-14 victory over the Panthers at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field.

Harrold completed 16 of 23 passes for 192 yards but was held without a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 3.

The game marks Tyrone’s 27th appearance in the semifinal round of the District playoffs since the organization instituted a playoff system in 1985. The Eagles are 16-10 in the semifinal round.

Central, which has not been held below 40 points this season while compiling a 10-0 record, faces Westmont Hilltop in the other semifinal.

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