This was supposed to be the season Penns Manor would have difficulty adapting to football life without all-everything quarterback Danny Ferens.
At Ligonier Valley, the Rams faced uncertainty with only three starters back on offense and five back on defense. A couple early season injuries added to the questions facing Ligonier.
Yet, as Week 7 begins, both Ligonier and Penns Manor are undefeated in six games. Once again, the Heritage Conference title and key District 6 points will be on the line when the rivals meet at Weller Field.
“Looking into the season, we’re excited at being where we’re at right now,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “I never expected that (record), but these kids have really come on. We know we’re going to be in for a battle with Ligonier. They’re another team that has some young kids but a lot of athletes there. We look for a real good game.”
Penns Manor has scored 214 points while holding opponents to 51 behind the strength of a big, physical and experienced offensive line. The Comets average 346 rushing yards a game, and 28 of the team’s 31 touchdowns have come on the ground. Penns Manor’s defense has produced 21 sacks.
“Our offensive line has been dominant. We have four starters back on the offensive line,” said Packer, listing right guard Luke Ruddock, center John Stupic, left guard Steven Dumm and tackle Brandon Alter. “We knew we had to build around that area. Those kids did a nice job the last few years. With their experience that’s been a strength for us.”
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Ruddock is a four-year starter, while 5-10, 235-pound Dumm and 6-1, 235-pound Stupic are three-year starters. Junior Alter is 6-3, 235.
“These are the same kids, all but one, that started last year,” Ligonier coach Roger Beitel said of the Comets. “Their offensive line across the front, the lightest kid is 235. They have three 235-pounders and one 250. They have some beef up front. That’s the strength of their football team on both sides of the ball. They have five kids that weigh more than any one kid we have. They have size and experience, kids who have started a lot of football games.”
That doesn’t mean Ligonier is without its own formidable weapons.
The Rams’ line has done its job despite the graduation and injury losses. Ligonier has outscored opponents 210-72 and uses a diverse offense that averages 203.8 rushing yards and 152.7 passing yards a game.
“We only returned three kids from last year. I’m elated to be 6-0,” Beitel said. “A lot of our credit needs to go to coach (Corey) Turcheck and coach (Karl) Petrof and what they’ve been able to do with our line. Tremendous coaching job by those two guys to put us in a situation where we’re 6-0.”
Rams freshman Collin Smith has emerged as a big-play back in the absence of junior Michael Keller, who was lost to injury early in the year. Smith has 326 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 50 carries, a 6.5 average. Senior quarterback Scott Fennell has masterfully guided the offense and is a threat to run (331 yards, eight touchdowns) or pass (916 yards, eight touchdowns, three interceptions). Senior Dereck Croyle has 314 rushing yards and six TDs.
Senior Alec Bloom is a 6-7 UConn recruit with 26 receptions for 476 yards and seven touchdowns. Bloom has a knack for making the key catch or momentum-swaying play. When opponents adapt their defense to concentrate on Bloom, the Rams have capitalized by gaining big chunks of yardage elsewhere. Beitel said such as the case against Windber, a game in which Bloom played a huge role despite a relatively quiet night on the statistics sheet. Last week Bloom had five catches for 133 yards against Saltsburg, his second 100-plus receiving game.
“When we look at Ligonier, really, the quarterback Fennell is really athletic,” Packer said. “He can throw the ball well but he can run the ball. The big tight end, Bloom, they use as a flanker, and they like to get the ball in his hands. Fennell throws the ball nice to him. He gets the ball up high and he goes and gets it.
“The tailback is a freshman, and, boy, I can see where that kid is getting stronger and he’s really running hard,” the Comets coach added. “They have a lot of weapons. We have to come out and play a well-balanced defensive game and stop them.”
Ligonier holds an 8-5 advantage in the series against Penns Manor since 2000. But the Comets have won four of the past five meetings since 2008.
“It all starts with the fact that I graduated from there,” said Beitel, a Penns Manor grad. “My wife and I joke that I love it but I hate it. I have people that I grew up with and talk to, and I pull into town and they scream and yell to me. A couple years ago up there I called a timeout and someone yelled my name from the stands. Our kids asked, ‘Do you know that guy?’ I said, “Yeah, that’s one of my good friends growing up.’
“The last four or five years it’s become an interesting rivalry,” Beitel added. “The last few years whoever has won this game has gone on to become the conference champion.”
Marion Center at Northern Cambria
Northern Cambria (2-4) looks to rebound after a 53-6 loss to undefeated Berlin last week. The Colts have rushed for 1,486 yards and 15 touchdowns, with three runners carrying the bulk of the load. Nolan Paronish (487 rushing yards, three touchdowns), Joe Frontino (400, four) and Dartagnan Suchar (360, seven) have combined for 14 touchdown runs.
Marion Center (1-5) has lost four straight since a Week 2 victory at Saltsburg. Opponents have outscored the Stingers by a combined 158-71.
Marion Center fell 28-16 to Purchase Line last week, but scored the team’s second-highest point total of the season.
United at Purchase Line
Winless United (0-6) has been outscored 225-30 this season.
Last week, Homer-Center blanked the Lions 37-0.
Purchase Line won its second game of the season last week at Marion Center (28-16). The Dragons’ other victory was against Blacklick Valley (42-14) in Week 3.
Bishop McCort at Greater Johnstown
Bishop McCort (1-5) is coming off its first win of the season while Johnstown has dropped three straight and four of its past five.
Both programs look to take a positive step.
“As a team we’re still striving to get better in all phases of the game,” Johnstown coach Tony Penna Jr. said. “At times we look really good. At times we don’t. The effort’s been there. We’re focusing on execution and getting sharper. We feel we haven’t played our best game yet. It’s pretty simple football stuff we need to do but it just has to be executed on Friday nights.”
Each team has relied on young, but talented quarterbacks.
Johnstown sophomore Jeremy Updyke ranks fourth in the area with 864 passing yards (56 of 108).
McCort sophomore Blake Wade threw for 385 yards, but was slowed by an injury. Last week freshman Levi Cook stepped in as the Crushers beat Westmont 55-20. Cook has completed 7 of 18 passes for 149 yards and a pair of TDs. Crushers coach Kevin Sheridan said both quarterbacks are expected to see time this week.
The Crushers coach is wary of Johnstown’s big-play capability.
“Offensively they’re consistent in throwing the football,” Sheridan said. “They complete passes. They have a low number of interceptions compared to touchdowns. The consistency of their passing game is something to contend with. They have strong backs. They’ve improved on special teams. The defense is fast. It’s a big-play team.
“It’s going to be all the more important for us to be very sharp on our attention to detail. If you make mistakes on the defensive side or offensive side, their ability to make big plays could sway the momentum quickly.”
Likewise, Penna is concerned by McCort’s playmakers such as senior Nemo Trexler.
“McCort has athletes all over the place. Their running game is really strong, right at you, downhill,” Penna said. “I was impressed with how they ran against Westmont. They’ve got guys who can throw and run. You have to watch Nemo all over the place. They played a tough early season schedule and you can’t be deceived by that (overall record). They’re a tough quality ballclub and we’re going to have our hands full.”
Johnstown will begin its Final Drive fundraiser to benefit the Family Kitchen food pantry. A portion of ticket prices will go toward the charity.
Bedford at Somerset
This inter-county rivalry is one of the marquee match ups of Week 7. Each team is 5-1.
Bedford’s lone loss came in Week 3 at Richland (53-3). Since then, the Bisons have rolled over Bishop McCort (49-0), Westmont (54-10) and Johnstown (48-33).
Somerset won its first five games and nearly pulled off an upset at state third-ranked Richland before falling 28-24 when the Rams scored with 14.1 seconds left last week at Herlinger Field.
Somerset sophomore quarterback Dylan Barnes has filled in for injured veteran starter Tanner Stull the past three weeks. Barnes has completed 50 percent of his passes and thrown for 272 yards (13 of 26) and three touchdowns against no interceptions.
Barnes is just as effective on the ground, carrying 47 times for 289 yards, a 6.2 average with three touchdowns. Bryce Mostoller has 12 catches for 202 yards and a pair of scores, Raven Beeman has nine receptions for 186 yards and two touchdowns, and Douglas Berkebile has nine catches for 146 yards and two TDs. Mostoller has eight sacks on defense.
Bedford has rushed for 1,570 yards and 20 touchdowns, with three runners gaining 300-plus yards and a fourth closing in on that mark. Jeremiah Bingham (74 carries, 416 yards), Kody Blevins (33-367), August Cook (43-302) and Austin Montgomery (48-261) are top rushers. Montgomery has passed for 557 yards and three touchdowns.
Bishop Guilfoyle at Central Cambria
Central Cambria (5-1) has won five straight games since dropping its opener at Somerset. That’s one more win than the Red Devils had in the previous two seasons combined.
The Marauders (4-2) have a four-game winning streak since losing their first two games at Bedford and against Richland.
Each team is undefeated in four Section 1 games, and tonight’s winner will take sectional honors.
Red Devils junior quarterback Will Seymour has been effective on the ground and through the air. He’s passed for 584 yards and rushed for 404 and nine scores. Last week he ran for 131 yards and three scores and passed for 151 yards in a 39-22 win at Forest Hills.
Guilfoyle quarterback Brandon Chadbourn returned to the offense three weeks ago after an injury, and he’s led the Marauders to wins over Forest Hills, Penn Cambria and Bishop Carroll.
Central Cambria’s defense has 14 interceptions and five fumble recoveries as well as six sacks.
Cambria Heights at Bishop Carroll
Each team is looking to bounce back.
Bishop Carroll (3-3) dropped two tough contests, falling to Bishop Guilfoyle (14-7) at Mansion Park last week and to Central Cambria (17-7) in Week 5.
Prior to the slide, the Huskies won three of their first four games with two shutouts and a game in which the Huskies allowed only a field goal.
Cambria Heights (1-5) has dropped four straight since a high-scoring Week 2 victory over Westmont.
Carroll’s Tyler Janosik rushed for 513 yards and six touchdowns. Brody Shuty has five interceptions for the Huskies, and Janosik has 54 tackles, an average of nine a game.
Josh Fees leads Heights with 542 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Forest Hills at Penn Cambria
Penn Cambria (1-5) finally cracked the win column with a 32-22 victory at Cambria Heights.
Forest Hills (3-3) has had an up-and-down ride while contending with a rash of injuries. The Rangers started 2-0, dropped a pair, and then split their past two games, falling at Central Cambria (39-22) last week and beating Cambria Heights (42-0) in Week 5.
Rangers quarterback Joe Donoughe has completed 74 of 153 passes for 1,100 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. The junior leads the Rangers with 370 rushing yards and eight scores.
Penn Cambria has rushed for only 556 yards in six games, an average of 92.7 a game and 3.2 a carry. The Panthers have 351 passing yards, two touchdowns and nine interceptions. Junior Tyler Strasser carried 24 times for 98 yards in last week’s win over Heights. Chad Tsikalas completed five of seven passes for 72 yards, a touchdown and a pick against the Highlanders.
Shade at Berlin Brothersvalley
Undefeated Berlin (6-0) has the area’s leading rusher in Braden Fochtman (100 carries, 1,142 yards), but the Mountaineers also have one of the conference’s most stingy defenses.
Last week, Berlin scored 53 and allowed Northern Cambria only six points, the third time opponents have tallied single digits. No team has scored more than 14 against Berlin, which has a cumulative 237-52 scoring margin.
Shade (3-3) is .500 after falling 12-0 to North Star. The Panthers have rushed for 1,217 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, with four players gaining at least 200 rushing yards. Sophomore Joe Hudak has six catches for 159 yards and a touchdown.
Meyersdale at North Star
North Star (4-2) wants to build momentum after last week’s shutout at Shade. Meyersdale (5-1) looks to continue its climb back after suffering its lone loss in Week 4.
The Cougars dropped their opener at Portage 41-0 but ran off three straight wins until a relatively close 26-12 loss to Berlin.
North Star’s Thomas Miller is among the area’s leading rushers with approximately 800 yards.
On paper, Meyersdale has won two straight, including a forfeit over Ferndale in Week 5 and a 54-0 rout over visiting Conemaugh Valley last week. Gavin Berkley has a team-high 546 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns for the Red Raiders.
Windber at Portage
Portage (4-1) has scored 136 points in its past three games, all wins.
The Mustangs’ lone loss was in Week 2 at Berlin (28-14).
Windber (4-2) beat rival Conemaugh Township 42-35 last week after falling at Ligonier, 33-26, in Week 5.
“Windber has four great athletes,” Portage coach Gary Gouse said. “We know them from other sports. Both Tomlinsons (Devon and Dan), Matt Barkley is an outstanding receiver and a threat all the time. Their backfield is back from last year. The (Dustin) Blough boy runs hard. They have a lot of weapons on offense. They can score at any time from anywhere on the field. We’re trying to prevent the big play. If they’re going to score, we’ve got to make them earn it.”
Portage also has multiple threats, with quarterback Michael Bryja’s passing and Caleb Kephart and Luke Dividock’s running. The Mustangs have rushed for 1,479 yards despite having a bye in Week 5.
“Bryja has thrown the ball very well. They have a lot of weapons on offense,” Windber coach Matt Grohal said. “They’ve got a whole lot of play-action plays in the arsenal. We know we need to stop the run because we haven’t done that all year. But they throw the ball well too.”
Kutztown at Chestnut Ridge
Chestnut Ridge (4-2) has won three straight including last week’s 24-2 victory over St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy.
Junior fullback Matt Wiley leads the Lions with 558 rushing yards on 93 carries. He’s rushed for 375 yards and all six of his touchdowns during the winning streak. Defensively, junior Noah Osman has four of Ridge’s nine interceptions.
Kutztown (0-6) is winless and has been outscored 241-93. The Cougars have allowed 40 or more points in each of the last four games.
Homer-Center at Conemaugh Township
Undefeated Homer-Center (6-0) visits Conemaugh Township (1-5) a week after a controversial finish impacted the coaching staff for this week’s game.
Head coach Sam Zambanini was ejected late in a 42-35 loss at Windber and by PIAA rules must sit out this week. The actions of two assistant coaches during and after the game reportedly were being investigated.
On the field, three different Township runners have gained at least 350 rushing yards – sophomore Austin Myers (97-388, five TDs), senior Kody Ofsanko (56-375) and senior Bruno Rosa (61-352). Quarterback Rosa has completed 22 of 39 passes for 307 yards since returning from an injury.
Homer-Center has outscored opponents 225-55. Last week the Wildcats shut out winless United 37-0.
Homer-Center has scored 30 or more points five times and had 28 points in its other victory.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.