HYDE — Fans at the Bison Sports Complex got their money’s worth, and then some, when the Clearfield Bison took to the field to start Mountain League play on Friday night. Their opposition came from the Penns Valley Rams, who dueled with Clearfield a year ago in a back-and-forth contest that the Bison eventually won.
On this night, fans got the encore. Once one team scored, the other answered. For almost 48 minutes, neither team would give an inch. On this night, the last team to hold the ball would win the game, and it was the Bison who put the final points on the board in a thrilling 56-49 instant classic.
“Our kids played the whole game. Some things happened and they (Penns Valley) made some plays, but we didn’t quit playing,” Bison head coach Tim Janocko said afterwards.
Things for Clearfield started off quickly as after a three-and-out by the Rams, Oliver Billotte immediately found Jake Lezzer on the opening play for 38 yards to put the Bison just outside the end zone. Billotte then called his own number just two plays later to add on the first points of the night. Zach Hess stayed true with his left foot to put the score at 7-0 early in the game.
Not to be outdone, Penns Valley quickly answered back when their lead man at the helm, Aaron Tobias, connected with Logan Snyder for 64 yards. But, the drive stalled inside the Bison 10, and the Rams had to settle for a field goal to make the score 7-3.
Clearfield got back on the board minutes later when an 8-play, 66-yard drive concluded with Lezzer scoring his first touchdown on a 19-yard pitch and catch, and another extra point made it another two-possession game, and it still was in the first quarter. But, the Bison defense could not hold that gap as Penns Valley came right back with a near identical drive that concluded with a nine-yard pass from Tobias to Austin Fisher to pull within one score. After one quarter, Clearfield held the 14-10 edge.
Janocko was impressed with Tobias, just as he was last year, saying, “He is an excellent quarterback, and their scheme is good. It fits him well.”
The Bison bent a bit in the opening quarter, but opened the second with another touchdown pass from Billotte to Lezzer, this one from 15 yards away. Hess made the score 21-10 just over a minute into the second quarter, however it did not stay that way long.
Tobias was having himself a night in the first half, as he found a gap in the Bison secondary, launching a 64-yard bomb to Logan Snyder to put momentum back on the sideline of the team in white.
At this point, neither Tobias nor Billotte found their footing as each traded short drives that either ended in punts or a turnover on downs. Each ultimately had solid nights, combining for 15 touchdowns and almost 800 yards of offense.
The Rams had the ball one final time in the second quarter following a low punt from Hess, and the drive stalled out at the Bison 28, but the Penns Valley coaches decided to let their kicker, Gage Ripka, show his leg, as they lined up for a 45-yard field goal with just a few seconds remaining. Although the kick began pulling hard to the left, the ball had just enough momentum to make it just inside the upright, and the Rams headed into the break with momentum despite trailing 21-20.
When it came time for the second half, it became clear the first two quarters were just the prelude. What soon followed for the final 24 minutes turned the back-and-forth contest of the first half into a true instant classic.
Clearfield opened the second half with possession, and after moving the chains on fourth down to keep the drive moving, Billotte was able to find Matt Pallo over the middle for a picturesque touchdown. Hess added the extra point to make it 28-20.
Penns Valley then showed their big-play ability as Tobias again found Fisher on the longest play of the night from either side, an 87-yard pass that pulled the Rams to within two. Tobias then called his own number on the conversion, and with 9:56 remaining in the third quarter, the sides were tied up 28-28.
At that point, the shootout really began, and the Bison loaded up first with Billotte capping a methodical, but short, drive with a 3-yard dive into the end zone. Hess then made the score 35-28 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Rams didn’t need the entire three minutes, as Tobias added another passing touchdown to his list, this one to Ripka, who then followed up with the extra point, and the game was knotted at 35 points each with 25 seconds still remaining in the quarter. It seemed as though whomever made the first mistake, or whomever would have the ball last, would be the winner.
For Billotte, last wasn’t going to include a lot of time being used, because a mere 15 seconds later he added another touchdown pass onto his stat line, this one to Ian Billotte. The 42-35 score came with 10 seconds remaining in the third.
Just over a minute later, Tobias changed that score as he and Fisher hooked up again for their third touchdown pass and catch. The score was 42-42; something had to happen to give either side an advantage.
That came on the next drive. Despite a big night for Billotte, who finished with almost 400 all-purpose yards and eight total touchdowns, he was not immune to mistakes. That mistake came on the ensuing possession when he was intercepted by Snyder, ultimately the only turnover for either side on the night.
But, the statement drive came following that interception. Not from the Rams offense, but instead the Bison defense.
After struggling to hold back the Rams for the entire game, the Bison defense stood tall and kept the Rams from converting on fourth down, something they had not done all game long. Janocko said that his defense making that stop was a game changer, and a statement, that they needed.
At that point, the Bison sideline and the coaches decided it was time to try and put the game away, and rather than rely on the passing game, they elected to try and establish a ground game that wasn’t existent in the first half. That meant Brett Zattoni was getting a healthy dose of the football.
He got that, and then some, as the drive following the turnover on downs saw him carry the ball six times for 40 yards, more than he had gained the entire first half. That drive concluded when Billotte dove into the end zone from one yard out. Hess put through the extra point, and Clearfield took the 49-42 lead with just over three minutes left in the game.
“We struggled in the first half with the run, but when Zattoni got some confidence and he gets into the second level, he’s tough,” Janocko said.
That ground game only did so much because Tobias again torched the Bison secondary with a pass to Snyder for 55 yards on the ensuing possession to set up 1st and goal. One play later, Tobias culminated his seven-touchdown performance with an eight-yard run. Ripka’s kick tied the game up once again at 49-49, but with 2:25 left in the game, Clearfield had one more opportunity to put the game away, and leave the Rams with nothing but wonder.
Starting at their own 29, Billotte and his offense took three plays to get on the downhill side of the field. But, on what looked to be a four-yard completion suddenly took on an entire new meaning. The Rams defense got angry and after the play ended had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on them, taking a four-yard gain and turning it into 1st and 10 at the 20.
It then became a game of keep away, and ride the clock, as Billotte and Zattoni worked the ball inside the 10. As the clock became more critical, the Bison used a pair of timeouts, including their last one to discuss what to do on 4th-and-Goal at the 1. A field goal would win the game, but Janocko knew the defense would be going after the block. At the same time, if they went for it, and failed, the Rams would be deep in their own territory and would not be able to kneel on it because of the risk of a safety.
Janocko decided to give his offense the opportunity, and after 96 points had already been put up, he was looking at his offense to put up another six and close out the night.
The snap came under center, and Billotte pushed hard to the left, and the Rams pushed back, so hard one of the linemen lost his helmet trying to tackle. But, Billotte was not quitting, as he pushed into the end zone, and the home sideline erupted. Hess put the extra point through, but also knew his job wasn’t done. Seven seconds remained, and the special teams had to be aware of the risk of laterals on the final kickoff. The Rams also knew if they could get the ball, they had a big chance of sending the game into extra minutes.
Hess hammered the ensuing kickoff to the right side of the Rams receiving group, and the return came down the sidelines and back towards the hash marks. But, by the time the Penns Valley returner was brought to the ground, the scoreboard read all zeroes, and the Bison escaped with the triumph to stay unbeaten.
Janocko felt relieved after the game was done, considering he and his team were on the field for almost three hours. As he gathered his team on the field, he told his team he was proud of them for not giving up, but the work for the next game had just begun. His demeanor was one of joy, and relief. When asked if the back-and-forth game was fun or frustrating as a coach, he had a simple answer.
“Both,” he said with a chuckle.
Clearfield (2-0) has its first road contest of the season next Friday night when they travel to Martinsburg to face the Central Dragons. The Dragons are coming off a 12-7 victory over Tyrone. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
SCORE BY QUARTER
Penns Valley 10 10 15 14 – 49
Clearfield 14 7 14 21 – 56
BISON: 1-yard run by O. Billotte (Hess kick), 10:24
RAMS: 24-yard field goal by G. Ripka, 9:15
BISON: 19-yard pass from O. Billotte to Lezzer (Hess kick), 6:51
RAMS: 9-yard pass from Tobias to Fisher (G. Ripka kick), 4:00
BISON: 15-yard pass from O. Billotte to Lezzer (Hess kick), 10:45
RAMS: 64-yard pass from Tobias to Snyder (G. Ripka kick), 9:12
RAMS: 45-yard field goal by G. Ripka, 0:00
BISON: 29-yard pass from O. Billotte to Pallo (Hess kick), 9:13
RAMS: 87-yard pass from Tobias to Fisher (Tobias run), 4:56
BISON: 3-yard run by O. Billotte (Hess kick), 3:13
RAMS: 28-yard pass from Tobias to G. Ripka (G. Ripka kick), 0:25
BISON: 53-yard pass from O. Billotte to I. Billotte (Hess kick), 0:10
RAMS: 23-yard pass from Tobias to Fisher (G. Ripka kick), 11:05
BISON: 1-yard run by O. Billotte (Hess kick), 3:28
RAMS: 8-yard run by Tobias (G. Ripka kick), 2:25
BISON: 1-yard run by O. Billotte (Hess kick), 0:07
First Downs: 11/20
Rush Yards: 136/139
Pass Yards: 420/363
Total Yards: 556/502
Penns Valley: Winkelblech-9 carries, 51 yards; Tobias-7 carries, 50 yards, 2 TD; Baney-6 carries, 28 yards; Ilgen-4 carries, 7 yards.
Clearfield: Zattoni-22 carries, 111 yards; O. Billotte-15 carries, 38 yards, 4 TD; Firanski-1 carry, 4 yards; I. Billotte-1 carry, 3 yards; Plubell-1 carry, 3 yards.
Penns Valley: Tobias-19 for 29, 420 yards, 5 TD.
Clearfield: O. Billotte-17 for 29, 335 yards, 4 TD, INT.
Penns Valley: Snyder-6 catches, 199 yards, TD; Fisher-6 catches, 151 yards, 3 TD; G. Ripka-5 catches, 59 yards, TD; S. Ripka-2 catches, 11 yards.
Clearfield: Lezzer-6 catches, 132 yards, 2 TD; Pallo-4 catches, 151 yards, TD; I. Billotte-2 catches, 79 yards, TD; Kline-2 catches, 46 yards; Domico-2 catches, 22 yards; Firanski-1 catch, 12 yards.