Ligonier Valley faces key game vs. Penns Manor after 2-0 start
LIGONIER — Two weeks into the season, the Ligonier Valley Rams look just as impressive as they were expected to be.
The real test, however, comes tonight.
Last Friday, the Rams won their second straight contest in dominating fashion, dispatching Homer-Center 35-0 to set up a battle of 2-0 teams tonight when Ligonier Valley travels to face Penns Manor.
The Comets and Rams have outscored their opponents 87-18 and 74-6, respectively, through two weeks, but another blowout this week for either team would be highly unexpected. Both teams were pegged by many coaches as favorites in the conference, along with United, and tonight's game is likely to be crucial in determining this year's Heritage Conference champion.
The Comets were the only Heritage team to reach the District 6 semifinals last year, and they brought back a host of talent, including sophomore quarterback Danny Ferens and senior running back Travis Trimble.
"We're relishing the underdog role," said Ligonier Valley head coach Roger Beitel. "It's well chronicled how super they are, so we're looking forward to going after them and putting forth our best effort. It's going to be a tough place to play up there."
What may help the Rams tonight is the emergence of quarterback John Jones as a passer. Against Homer-Center, Jones completed 7 of 12 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown — all in the first half — to bring his season totals to 11-of-19 for 185 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Beitel indicated after last Friday's win that his Rams will do whatever it takes offensively to score on the Comets.
"We're going to try to stick to what we do well, but at the same token, we have to look at what they're doing defensively on film, and if they're giving us something, we're going to try to take it," Beitel said. "If there's something they're going to try to take away, we're not going to try to slam our heads into a wall.
"I have a lot of confidence in (Jones), and I have a lot of confidence in our receivers to catch the football," Beitel added, "so we're going to throw it around. We've been getting some jokes around here, people saying 'Air Beitel' and things like that, but we're not going to run just to run."
Against Homer-Center, Ligonier Valley opened with its usually strong running game, but with the Wildcats loading the box to stop it, the Rams countered by going to the air.
On Ligonier Valley's first drive, Jones made two key back-to-back 14-yard completions, one to Russell Markosky and one to Anthony Tutino, that eventually led to one of Jones' two rushing touchdowns.
Jones completed five first-half passes to Tutino, the junior split end. Those completions included a 50-yard pass play and a 10-yard second-quarter touchdown strike that put Ligonier Valley ahead 21-0.
"They stepped up in key situations and made plays," Jones said of his fellow playmakers. "We all have stuff we need to improve on, but I think we overcame that."
On the other sideline, the Wildcats were practically forced to become a one-dimensional team offensively because quarterback Stephen Nymick left the game in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury after making a tackle on defense near his own goal line.
Nymick never returned to the game, and he was on crutches on the sideline for the second half of the contest. He was replaced under center by senior Zak Harvey, who normally lines up at tight end.
Without their starting quarterback for most of the contest, the Wildcats managed just 99 total yards with 18 coming through the air. The Rams held Homer-Center to 14 total yards in the first half.
"We lose our quarterback, and it makes you a little more one-dimensional," said Homer-Center head coach Greg Page, "but even prior to that, we had trouble moving the football. We have some veteran kids up front, but we have some younger kids, too, and it takes time."
The only time the Wildcats did move the ball effectively was on the opening drive of the second half. Down 21-0, they started on their own 16-yard line and went on a long, grind-it-out drive that took 11:19 off the clock. The drive, which featured three fourth-down conversions, reached the Ligonier Valley 11 before Jones intercepted a third-and-8 pass by Harvey.
The interception was one of five turnovers committed by Homer-Center.
While Page was disappointed his team didn't score on that drive, he was pleased with his players' effort.
"We did have our struggles, but on the other hand, the beginning of the third quarter, we went right down the field," Page said. "We couldn't punch it in, and I?take that on with the play-calling. I got vanilla, conservative, at that point. It would've been nice to get a score, but we came out with a little more drive."
When the Rams got the ball back with 41 seconds left in the third quarter, they responded with an efficient seven-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard run by Ryan Knupp to make the score 28-0.
Knupp had six carries for 74 yards on that drive alone, and he finished as Ligonier Valley's leading rusher with 81 yards.
"The offensive line, I?thought they established what they need to establish in the third quarter," Beitel said, "because we weren't happy with them at halftime, but they responded real well."
The Rams would score again on their only other possession of the second half to make it 35-0, and they managed to keep the shutout intact despite a flurry of penalties that put Homer-Center inside the Ligonier Valley 10 with less than a minute to go. The Rams' backups stopped the Wildcats on three straight plays from inside the 5 and stopped the game's final play at the 1.
The penalties were probably the only blemish on the Rams' performance as they committed nine of them and were penalized 83 yards. Homer-Center committed just one penalty.
"Way too many penalties," Beitel said. "It's completely unacceptable by our standards to be committing some of the penalties we did."
While the game ended with a goal-line stand for Ligonier Valley, Homer-Center nearly began the game with one of its own.
With the Rams facing a fourth-and-goal at the 2 on their opening possession, Jones tried to take it in himself, and it looked the Wildcats had him stuffed. However, Jones finally got into the end zone on a third or fourth effort, much to the chagrin of Page, who thought the play should've been blown dead after Jones' momentum had been stopped.
"To get a stop at the beginning may have helped, or it may not have. We knew what we were up against these first two weeks," said Page, whose team lost to Penns Manor 38-6 Week 1. "The effort was just 100 percent better. That's all we ask for. That's what we wanted this week was growth. We'll take a couple steps back with the (Nymick) injury, but we'll regroup. That's the thing about that nice little town over there (Homer City), those kids don't ever quit on the effort."
The Wildcats continue a very difficult beginning to their season schedule this evening when they host Langley, a Double-A school from the Pittsburgh City League that enters the game 2-0. The game, which is the Wildcats' home opener, will begin at 7:30 p.m.
NOTES: Last Friday's game was Ligonier Valley's first at home since the team merged with Laurel Valley. Longtime Laurel Valley head coach Jerry Page served as the honorary captain for the Rams. ... Bryan Saxton set up the Rams' first score with a 45-yard kickoff return to open the game. ... Ligonier Valley outgained Homer-Center 127 to minus 5 in the first quarter while taking a 14-0 lead. ... Defensive lineman Brandon Layden recovered two fumbles for the Rams.