DUBOIS — The week before Thanksgiving is the official start to crowning the PIAA State champions in football. The brackets are set, and 16 teams begin their quest to make the trip to battle out for the big hardware. The Clearfield Bison have made it to that level one time in the last three years, with their quest one year ago halted in a district championship.
This year, with an undefeated record, the Bison returned to the PIAA tournament hoping to match a record obtained by the historic 2010 squad.
On a chilly fall night, with rain in the air and winds gusting across the field at E.J. Mansell Stadium in DuBois, the Bison would look across the field at the Jersey Shore Bulldogs, a team that went on a four-game streak to make it into the playoffs.
It would be a night where the biggest factor outside of the weather would be field position. A classic old-school football game would take hold as the Bison and Bulldogs would push their respective lines to the limit on the ground. But when push came to shove, the Bison would shove the hardest. The second half of football saw Clearfield score three times and force two turnovers, helping seal the deal on a 27-8 victory, and matching the 2010 team’s record of 13 wins, remaining undefeated.
“Field position really hurt us the whole first half. We always had our backs against the wall. The wind played a big factor tonight,” Head coach Tim Janocko said afterward. “Our offensive line did a tremendous job. Tyler Stratton and Christian Lezzer took over the game.”
Combined, the two seniors would account for 272 yards rushing, and all four touchdowns. But, to Lezzer the biggest factor was the play of the offensive line, especially in the second half.
“The line played great. We played great in the first half, but we were missing one or two blocks that could break us and make the big run,” the senior quarterback said. “When you’re getting five or six yards a carry, first down after first down, you’re breaking their will, and we could see it; their heads were hanging down and that’s the position we want to be in.”
Despite the score, the game was close between the two teams, with field position being the big factor. In the first half, Clearfield found itself backed up deep in its own territory on more than one occasion, forcing punts and then handing Jersey Shore strong starting position for their ensuing drives.
“We couldn’t get anything established. We had the one big pass play to get us out of that hole for the first score, but nothing else was big,” Janocko said.
But when it mattered most, the Bison defense dug its cleats into the turf and made it count. They gave up 204 yards rushing, but the Bison defense kept leading rusher Utoafili Agae-Naipo to just 95 yards on the ground, and forced quarterback Logan English to throw two interceptions.
The squads would exchange punts on the opening drives, with the Bison forcing a turnover on downs on the third. When Clearfield took over with 6:26 left in the first quarter, the rain in the sky that seemed to be flirting with those in attendance began falling at a more regular rate. It seemed to effect the footing initially as Stratton and Lezzer only gained two yards, forcing a 3rd and 8 at their own 31. That’s when Lezzer ripped a deep ball to Stratton, who somehow pulled the ball in between the defense for a massive 38-yard gain and set up a first down at the Bulldog 31.
It would take five more plays, but the Bison made each play count as they would find the end zone on a 7-yard run by Lezzer. The extra point by Spencer Herrington put Clearfield up 7-0 with 2:50 left in the opening quarter.
The problem was that Jersey Shore wanted to show it could make big plays when it mattered as well, and on one particular drive in the second quarter, they did just that. An opening 17-yard run by Jordan Tawney set the tone, putting Clearfield again back into its own territory, then two passes from English to Billy Costa would set up a 1st and 10 at the Bison 19. Two runs had the Bulldogs in the red zone, and looking to tie the game.
That was when momentum took the first big swing. Tawney took the handoff up the middle, and seemed to be close to scoring when he lost the handle on the ball. Just outside the goal line, Jake Wingate pounced on it, recovering at the one, claiming the first turnover of the night.
The two squads would exchange turnovers for the rest of the quarter, and the Bison would go into halftime with a touchdown lead, but were unsettled as they seemed to not have the momentum squarely on their side.
“At halftime, we said ‘Look, this could be the last half of football we ever play…let’s not make it that. Let’s go back to practice next week,'” Lezzer said.
With Clearfield getting the ball to start the second half, the team seemed to enter the field with a renewed confidence, and wanted to get going early. After a strong return, Clearfield started 1st and 10 at their own 40. After five running plays, they already found themselves at the Bulldog 31. Two plays later, they were in the red zone looking for more. Two more plays later, they got it, as Stratton would muscle his way into the end zone on a 9-yard run. Herrington’s extra point made the score 14-0 with 8:07 left in the third quarter.
“We wanted to set the tone,” Janocko said.
If setting the tone was the objective, it was stamped in granite on the kickoff. Derek Leese took the kick at his own 19, and found a hole, but when he was hit the ball popped out, and the Bison were right there to pounce on it, forcing the third turnover of the game, and for the first time on the night, set the Bison up with starting field position in enemy territory. The ensuing drive would last seven plays, with Stratton bouncing off tacklers on 1st and goal at the 7, actually getting swung by the jersey into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. Herrington had the extra point blocked, leaving the score 20-0, where it remained heading to the fourth quarter.
“This time of year, momentum swings, already up two scores, to stick another one in and kill their momentum, it was big,” Janocko said.
Lezzer would echo his coach, stating “We struggled in the first half, and put ourselves in situations we didn’t want to be in. We held strong, but those aren’t positions we want to find ourselves in. Win the field position battle, and to come out and run the ball like we did, get five or six yards a carry, first down after first down, I think we broke their will a little bit.
“The fumble recovery on the kickoff was huge, and to go down and score again, that was huge for us.”
Clearfield would continue to run the ball hard entering the fourth quarter, but what seemed to really help out by having the 20-point cushion was the defense. They had given up some big plays in the first half, mostly passes and missed tackles, but they would make up for it immediately on the next play.
“They would get a big play, then we’d get them for a loss, then a big play, then a loss. Our defense played real well,” Janocko said.
Clearfield’s final scoring drive came following the final Bulldog turnover, as Lezzer would find a gap on the right side of the Jersey Shore defense, sprinting for a 26-yard touchdown run. Herrington’s extra point made it 27-0 with 3:40 left in the game.
Jersey Shore finally put together a sustained drive late in the game, one that would last 14 plays and cover 79 yards, culminating with Agae-Naipo plunging in for a 1-yard touchdown. English would pass for the two-point conversion, which ended the scoring as the Bison recovered the onside kick attempt with 32 seconds remaining, and knelt on the ball for the final play of the game.
Janocko knew going into the game that Jersey Shore’s record did not reflect the kind of team they would be, and quickly pointed out the reason why they were a very formidable opponent.
“I knew they were going to be a good football team. Whatever happened, they overcame injuries halfway through the season, came back and won four in a row, and won a district championship coming. I knew it would be a good football game, and I was right,” Janocko said.
But now, the Bison are 13-0 for just the second time in school history, with many seniors on this year’s team being part of the successful 2010 group that made it to the PIAA State Quarterfinals. Both Janocko and Lezzer are thrilled to be at 13 wins this year, but are already looking forward to breaking the mark set two years ago.
“To get 13 wins two times in the last four years, it’s phenomenal. These kids do want to take it a step further, so that’s our goal is to take it that next step, and see what happens,” Janocko said.
“This is big for us. This is what we work for. Our town’s behind us, and this is the position we want to be in. It’s fun, now it’s the fun part. Just need to make the most of it,” Lezzer said.
Lezzer even went as far as saying when it came to football, Christmas came a bit early because the team is still doing what it set out to do.
“Coach Janocko tells us this all the time. Thanksgiving Day we come in the morning, have practice, then come home to have Thanksgiving dinner, then come next day we’re playing. It’s where you want to be,” Lezzer said.
Clearfield will put its 13-0 record on the line next week against another undefeated team in the Class AAA bracket in the PIAA tournament, the 13-0 Berwick Bulldogs, who held on to knock off Bethlehem Catholic by a final of 29-27 on Friday night. Date, time and location of the game will be finalized over the weekend.
The state quarterfinal matchup between the unbeaten Clearfield Bison and the unbeaten Berwick Bulldogs will take place next Friday night at 7 p.m. The game will be played at Central Mountain, where Clearfield played earlier this season in a 49-13 triumph over the Wildcats.
See photos of the game here: http://www.clearfieldfootball.org/112213Game.html
SCORE BY QUARTER
Jersey Shore 0 0 0 8 – 8
Clearfield 7 0 13 7 – 27
BISON: 7-yard run by Lezzer (Herrington kick), 2:50
BISON: 9-yard run by Stratton (Herrington kick), 8:07
BISON: 7-yard run by Stratton (Herrington kick Blocked), 4:55
BISON: 26-yard run by Lezzer (Herrington kick), 3:40
BULLDOGS: 1-yard run by Agae-Naipo (Pass from English to Reese), 0:32
First Downs: 14/13
Rush Yards: 204/311
Pass Yards: 83/38
Total Yards: 287/349
Time of Possession: 20:48/27:12
Jersey Shore: Agae-Naipo-17 carries, 95 yards, TD; Tawney-17 carries, 81 yards; English-6 carries, 28 yards.
Clearfield: Lezzer-22 carries, 165 yards, 2 TD; Stratton-20 carries, 107 yards, 2 TD; Ford-5 carries, 38 yards; Caldwell-2 carries, 2 yards; Team-1 carry, (-1) yards.
Jersey Shore: English-10 for 19, 83 yards, 2 INT.
Clearfield: Lezzer-1 for 5, 38 yards, INT
Jersey Shore: Costa-6 catches, 37 yards; Leese-1 catch, 14 yards; Lorson-1 catch, 12 yards; Baier-1 catch, 10 yards; Smith-1 catch, 10 yards.
Clearfield: Stratton-1 catch, 38 yards.