Homer-Center remains undefeated after picking off Marion Center
In training camp, Homer-Center Head Coach Greg Page talked about senior Levi McCracken's emergence as one of the team leaders and hardest workers.
That hard work is paying off as, for the second week in a row, McCracken played a major role in leading the Wildcats to victory -- a hard-fought, sometimes sloppy 28-12 win last Friday over the Marion Center Stingers.
After a winless season a year ago, there probably wasn't a lot of money on H-C being one of two teams in the conference still undefeated three weeks into the season. But, along with Ligonier Valley, that's where the Wildcats sit as they prepare for Friday night's game at Purchase Line.
"We'll take it, but it was a strange game, we had wet weather, and Marion Center came to play," Page commented after the game.
After playing mistake-free a week earlier in an upset victory over Northern Cambria, the Wildcats were anything but against Marion Center with two turnovers and six penalties for 65 yards, most of them costly.
But it was the Stingers' mistake that helped the Wildcats regain their footing.
On Marion Center's first possession of the second half, a botched snap on a punt set Homer-Center up at the Stingers 25 yard line after a 29-yard loss.
With his team clinging to a 14-12 lead late in the third quarter, and faced with a fourth and 10 at the Stingers 25 after a holding penalty, McCracken made the play of the game with a sensational catch at the Stingers one yard line to set up a critical score.
Stingers defensive backs Brodey Thompson and Jake Bothell had good coverage, but McCracken went up for the ball, it caromed off two players, and McCracken made the catch on the deflection while falling on his back.
On the next play, H-C's Mike Newhouse scored his second touchdown of the game to extend the lead.
Following a penalty, sophomore place-kicker Zach Grady, who missed the first two weeks of the season due to injury, attempted and made his first kick of the season from 27 yards out to make it a two possession game, 21-12, with 2:54 to play in the third quarter.
McCracken then put the game away in the fourth quarter with a 38-yard interception return as Marion Center tried tricking the Wildcats defense with a halfback option pass and a throwback from Thompson to quarterback Jake Bothell.
Grady's extra point made it 28-12.
"Two big plays," Page said. "The interception was big; more important was the catch he made at the one yard line with us up by just two points. They had coverage, and he showed great concentration to make that grab. Levi is a kid who does what he is coached to do on both sides. Their kid made a great play to knock the ball away, but then on the deflection, Levi really made a play -- and then on the interception, he stayed at home, Marion Center at that point needed to try something and he made another great play (returning it for a touchdown)."
The game seemed like it would be a blowout at the start.
After stopping Marion Center on three plays and forcing a punt, Homer-Center went on a methodical 17-play, 93-yard drive capped off when quarterback Aaron Berezansky scored on a keeper from a yard out to make it 6-0 with 45 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Newhouse completed a fullback option pass to Jared Nealy on the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
"That was a helpless feeling watching that drive," Marion Center Head Coach Dave Malicky said in amazement. "We did make some adjustments, but Newhouse is a tough back. He is a horse, but we did a better job on him in the second half. We are growing."
The H-C defense, which allowed only 170 yards rushing combined in its first two wins, again forced a three-and-out on the Stingers' second possession.
On the first play from scrimmage, Newhouse scored from 69 yards to make it 14-0 with 10:32 to play in the half.
It appeared as if the rout was on.
Except, Stingers senior Brodey Thompson completely flipped the momentum on the ensuing kickoff when he returned it down the right sideline 87 yards to pull Marion-Center within eight points. Although the try for two failed, Marion Center was back in the game, trailing 14-6 just 17 seconds after Newhouse had scored.
"It was a heck of an individual effort," Malicky said. "There were some good blocks, but Brody broke two or three tackles including one at the 15-yard line. You look for your best players to step up, and he really did right there and changed the complexion of the game and got momentum going in our favor."
"Thompson's one heck of an athlete," Page commented. "I'm not sure film did him justice because he's bigger than I thought. He's fast, he's slippery, and when you get a score like we did with Mike (Newhouse's) long run, you cannot give them one right back."
On the next possession, Homer-Center's offense was stymied by the Stingers, losing 3 yards on three plays, and was forced to punt.
"Offensively, with the rain, we were trying to keep it conservative, but they made that difficult," Page said of the Stingers defense.
MC was faced with third and 27 after a sack and a holding penalty, and it appeared as if Homer-Center's would get the ball right back.
But Stingers wide receiver Roger Bendis got behind the 'Cats secondary, and junior quarterback Jake Bothell hit him streaking down the right sideline for a 32-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
Thompson later scored his second touchdown of the game, making it 14-12. His 6-yard run capped off a 12-play, 60 yard drive that took 7:05 seconds off the clock.
Thompson was stopped on the two-point conversion, but Marion Center was back in the game. The Stingers trailed by just two points with 1:28 to play in the first half, although that would be their final points.
"Honestly, I really thought we had the momentum going our way, but in the second half it didn't go our way," Malicky said. "Teams that make big plays usually win ballgames, and I give Homer-Center credit, they really made some big plays.
"They made plays when they needed them, but I was so proud of our kids. I told our kids, 'Let's continue to learn our lessons and not be satisfied,' but the improvements we've made since the first week are just tremendous and I really believe we are going to be just fine."
"It was very disappointing to give up those two touchdowns in the manner we did," said Page. "To give up that long kickoff return and then the long pass play in that situation is disappointing defensively and on special teams. Overall, defensively, I thought we a nice job, but we just had key breakdowns at critical times that really hurt us.
"They really didn't chip away at us, so I'm proud of that and proud of our front seven, but they did hit us with some big plays. Bothel made some throws, so give him credit, but no way when it's third and long and fourth and long can you bail them out like that."
The Wildcats defense allowed only 129 yards, and just 92 rushing yards, limiting Thompson to 41 yards on eight attempts.
"Overall, our defense has been getting more physical," Page added. "I thought tonight we were very physical. I thought with their ground game we did a nice job staying home, we were getting hats to the football, lowering our shoulder and did a nice job."
Homer-Center rolled up 250 rushing yards, 305 overall, and was led by junior fullback Mike Newhouse, who finished with 122 yards rushing on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns.
"Mike is a guy who will get racked around yet get tough yards," Page said. "He'll run between the tackles. They were bringing eight guys up on the line of scrimmage, and on the touchdown run, it was well blocked, he found a seam, made a cut, gets in the open and it was nice to see."
The Wildcats travel to Purchase Line Friday night to face the 0-3 Red Dragons. Purchase Line ended a 24-game Heritage Conference winless drought last year at Homer-Center in convincing fashion, with a 24-6 win that included outgaining the Wildcats 350-174.
"Not to take anything away from our kids, but we are not to a point where we can win without our A game," Page commented. "It's the nature of our offense, unless we break a few big plays we are not going to win many easily.
"I just know this about Purchase Line. They came down here last year without a win, a pair of winless teams, and they took it to us. Plus, when you are about to face a back the caliber of Josh Huey, who is extremely slippery, extremely talented, you better be ready. I preached to our team this week that, despite our record or your opponent's record, you cannot get fat and happy. It will be same thing this week. I know I don't overlook anybody, our staff doesn't and our kids better not."
Huey, who rushed for over 100 yards last year against Homer-Center and scored three touchdowns, leads the Heritage Conference this year with 502 yards rushing on 70 attempts, a 7.2 average.
Huey rushed for 267 yards, scoring two touchdowns, a week ago in a loss to unbeaten Blacklick Valley.
Although H-C is still unbeaten this year, "It's a long season, and we have to continue to earn our way." Page concluded. "I told our young men that the best we can be after three weeks is 3-0, let's be humble about it, and on Monday we start the process of preparing for Week 4".
If Week 4 ends the same way as the first three, the Homer-Center Wildcats will be somewhere they haven't been since 1994 four weeks into the season: 4-0.
Notes: After the win, Homer-Center now leads the series with the Stingers, 17-14. The Wildcats outgained Marion Center 305-129É. Sophomore QB Aaron Berezansky completed four of his seven pass attempts for 55 yardsÉ. Junior Anthony Caruso, coming off an ACL injury that derailed his 2011 season, carried twice for 29 yards. Homer-Center has scored four touchdowns in each of its first three games, something the team has done only once in school history.