Five Aliquippa turnovers help fuel Tyrone’s semifinal upset
Written by: Josh Funk on Saturday, December 10th, 2011
ALTOONA, Pa. – Talent and athleticism are important components to any football team, but Tyrone senior quarterback Steve Franco will tell you heart matters, too.
“We played with so much heart today,” the Akron recruit said, standing near a throng of orange and black clad fans as Hershey Kisses rained down from the bleachers. “Nobody believed in us or gave us a chance…but us. It’s indescribable.”
Because of its heart, as well as timely execution and some opportunistic defense, Tyrone (14-1) added yet another chapter to its football lore, forcing five Aliquippa (14-1) turnovers (three on special teams) and stopping Aliquippa’s go-ahead two-point conversion attempt with 5:17 left in the game for a 20-19 victory in a PIAA Class AA semifinal played Saturday afternoon at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona.
With the victory, the Golden Eagles will face Lancaster Catholic (15-0), a 23-20 victor over West Catholic, for the PIAA AA championship game Saturday at noon from Hersheypark Stadium. Tyrone will be making its first PIAA finals appearance in a decade; Lancaster Catholic its second in three seasons.
Coming into the game, Tyrone’s field general had thrown 30 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions while Aliquippa’s first-string secondary had only allowed two passing touchdowns all season, including one last week against District 9 champion Moniteau in the quarterfinals.
Something had to give.
“I don’t know if worry is the right word,” John Franco said. “I think theirs is the best secondary we faced all year, but the team we played last week (Hickory) was pretty good also. We were more concerned with their pass rush (and protecting Steve).”
Which actually worked out respectably in the long run for the D6 champs. Even though Aliquippa got pressure from its defensive front seven, Steve Franco managed to use his maneuverability to extend plays and find open receivers.
While he did throw two interceptions and hit on only 11-of-28 passes, Franco made countless plays last longer with his moves and shiftiness, like a 40-yard pass he threw to running back Christian Getz to set up what proved to be the Golden Eagles’ winning touchdown three plays later. On that play, Franco rolled toward the near sideline, then cut back across the field, running nearly the entire width of the field before lofting the floater to Getz, who snuck behind the Quips’ secondary.
“His (Steve’s) strength has always been to extend plays,” John Franco said. “He makes something out of nothing. He’s done that for three years, but moreso this year than any other.”
“He’s a great player, no doubt about it,” said Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanic.
While Tyrone found itself skirting trouble, Aliquippa found itself getting buried in a hole. The Quips’ first two possessions netted just eight offensive yards. And the seventh play – Mikal Hall’s pass was picked off by Charles Wilson and returned 22 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Golden Eagle lead.
Aliquippa then fumbled the ensuing kickoff (Tyrone then missed a field goal wide right) and, after sophomore Terry Swanson (9 rush, 110 yards) busted a 52-yard run to the Tyrone 23, the Quips turned the ball over on downs three plays later.
But Steve Franco’s first interception led directly to Aliquippa’s first touchdown. Dravon Henry picked off the pass and returned it 28 yards to the Eagle 2. Henry crashed in on the next play, and the game was tied.
Tyrone came up empty on a 16-play, 74-yard, 7:46 drive which chewed up almost the entire second quarter. Another missed field goal wiped a scoring chance off the board.
Just three plays into the second half, Aliquippa went for broke, and it paid off. Hall (7-of-14, 93 yards) hit Hassahn Thompson on a 54-yard fly pattern down the visiting sideline to put the Quips ahead, 13-7. But Tyrone fired right back. Steve Franco hit passes of 36 yards to Lucas Woomer and a 14-yard lob to Getz on a 4th-and-5 scenario to lead to a 1-yard scoring run via a quarterback keeper – Franco’s 11th rushing touchdown on the season.
Aliquippa made a gamble with 9:14 left in the ball game and the score tied. With the ball at the Tyrone 47 yard line and a 4th-and-1 situation, the Quips elected to go for it. Henry was stuffed for a yard loss, and Tyrone, with a fresh wave of momentum, took over 52 yards from paydirt.
That was the starting point for the drive with Franco’s 40-yard pass to Getz. Set up with 1st-and-goal from the 10, Getz (24 rush, 43 yards) plowed ahead for a short gain and Franco’s 27th pass sailed incomplete. John Franco called timeout.
“We knew we were going to have to pass to win,” Franco said.
That Tyrone did – on a trick play where multi-purpose athlete James Dorminy lofted a throwback pass to Franco, who glided under the ball and hauled it in for the 8-yard scoring reception. The touchdown strike was Dorminy’s first pass attempt of the entire season.
Aliquippa fired right back. Faced with another 4th down – 4th-and-1 from its own 40, Henry (14 rush, 100 yards) broke free from a mass of linemen and defenders and rolled 60 yards for a touchdown. Aliquippa went for two, but Swanson was stuffed a half-yard short of the goal line.
Zmijanic answered with an emphatic “Absolutely not!” when questioned whether the decision to go for two was because the Quips do not have a consistent kicking game.
“We ran a play the kids talked about and we thought it was a good play,” Zmijanic said. “We’re not playing for ties. We’re playing for the win. We don’t play for ties at Aliquippa.”
Aliquippa had two chances – both of which ended in turnovers – inside of five minutes left in the game. The first came after an interception and gaining possession 22 yards from the end zone. But Hall was picked by Steve Franco. The Quips’ unbeaten season was doomed when it muffed its second punt of the game with :55 left in the game. In disgust, some of the Aliquippa players dejectedly threw their helmets on the turf, generating an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Two kneel downs sealed the game and the Tyrone upset.
Including downs, Aliquippa had seven turnovers this day. The Quips lost three fumbles (two muffed punts and one on a kickoff return) and threw two interceptions.
“That’s part of the game,” Zmijanic said. “You have to accept that sometimes that happens. Someone’s got to lose and unfortunately, it just happened to be us today.”
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