BELLEFONTE — The newly refurbished and reconstructed Rogers Stadium in Bellefonte got the game of the week in the eyes of many. Fans, media, and television all made their way to watch a showdown in the Mountain League as the Red Raiders welcomed in the Clearfield Bison to start the second half of both teams’ seasons.
What was billed as a showdown lived up to the previews, but in the end it was execution that made the difference. When it mattered the most, the Bison couldn’t execute the plays needed to gain yardage and points, and ultimately lost for the first time this season in a gut-wrenching 28-19 final.
“They made some plays, while we couldn’t make the plays we needed to,” head coach Tim Janocko said after the game. “We had some plays that we left on the table. It was a good high school game.”
Neither team got things going in the first quarter, but Clearfield’s game plan initially was to keep things balanced, as their opening drive lasted almost half the quarter, but faltered late as it was stopped on fourth down just outside the Red Raider 30. The drive was marred with a pair of early cramping injuries to both center Alan Myers and the Bison’s top receiver this season, Jake Lezzer. Although the ground game was solid, quarterback Oliver Billotte struggled late, forcing the turnover on downs.
The ensuing possession for Bellefonte focused on the ground game and their big running back, C.J. Funk, who has broken a few runs against the Bison in years past. This time, however, the home squad got on the board thanks to Ethan Rossman passing the ball for a deep 33-yard strike to Mason Grey across the middle of the field. The extra point was botched, but holder Jalen Emel is the backup quarterback for Bellefonte, and desperate to make a play he tossed the ball towards the end zone, where the Bison defense tipped the pass, but it fell into the hands off Isaiah Nadolsky for the unexpected two-point conversion. With 3:40 left in the first quarter, the Red Raiders held the 8-0 advantage.
Hoping to match the opposition, Clearfield came back on the field deciding to play the game that Bellefonte was, as they put the ball in the hands of their rushing attack.
The drive lasted into the first two minutes of the second quarter, totaling 15 plays beginning at their own 25-yard line. Clearfield pushed the Bellefonte defense back, and it was clear the opposition was getting tired. In the end, Brett Zattoni would pound the ball into the end zone for the first Bison score of the night. He tried to do the same on the two-point try, but was halted in the backfield, leaving the score 8-6 with just over 10 minutes until halftime.
Bellefonte did not waste any time after Clearfield pulled within two points, as the first play for the ensuing drive was a 47-yard sprint from Trae Bauman on a reverse to go from the Bellefonte 33 into the red zone.
Although the ground game got the offense close, the Bison defense still made a stand, forcing a fourth down call from the 8, one that saw Rossman hook up with Ryan Lehman for the second passing touchdown of the night. Rossman added the extra point, and it was back to a two-possession gap with just over six minutes remaining before the break.
Clearfield answered back with a methodical nine-play drive that culminated with Logan Firanski getting into the end zone from four yards out. Zach Hess finally got a chance to show off his leg, and the extra point pulled Clearfield back to within striking distance at 15-13.
That distance evaporated two plays later. On 2nd and 5 at their own 36, Bellefonte handed off to Jalen Emel, who gained enough yardage for the first down. The issue came as he was going to the ground, the ball was stripped from his hands and the Bison defense pounced. The first turning point of the night gave Clearfield a short field with 1:41 remaining, and a chance to go into the break with both the lead and momentum.
The play calls were all about passing, and it worked to perfection as Clearfield worked down the field, finding pay dirt thanks to Nick Domico catching the one-yard pass to give Clearfield the lead. Billotte tried to match the same result on the two-point try, but was denied, and heading into halftime it was the visiting team holding the advantage, 19-15.
Billotte finished the night with 152 yards passing, plus another 44 on the ground, and the one touchdown.
Neither team opened the second half with any promise, each trading punts. But, it took one play to change all that.
Facing 1st and 10 at their own 15, Bellefonte put the ball in the hands of Funk, and when he found blocking on the left side, he went for it. He got through the first level, then the second, and at that point the senior running back turned on the speed as though he was Saquon Barkley. Leaving every defender in his wake, the 85-yard touchdown run was the longest play given up by Clearfield on the season. Rossman’s extra point was blocked, leaving the score 21-15 with 7:29 remaining in the third quarter.
At this point, the game became about smart possessions, and not making mistakes. Both teams were beginning to get very chippy, and especially the Clearfield coaches were noticing it. On separate occasions in the third quarter, Bellefonte was called for personal fouls for either face masks or late hits, including one where a player struck a Clearfield lineman in the back of the head.
This didn’t seem to derail the Red Raiders as they halted some late momentum from the Bison when Billotte’s intended pass to Lezzer was picked off by Grey, who returned the ball inside the Bison 40.
What the ensuing drive contained got the Clearfield players, coaches, plus the Bellefonte fans roaring. A pair of 15-yard unnecessary roughness calls pushed the ball back to the Red Raider 31, giving them 2nd and 40. The first play was a quick pass to Emel for nine yards, setting up still a long play. Rossman then connected with Chris Paloskey for 23 yards, and suddenly what was a long distance was a manageable 4th and 8.
The Bison defense was on their heels, and the Red Raider offense saw it, as Rossman struck with a long bomb to Grey for 37 yards, and the unexpected yet remarkable touchdown. The extra point gave Clearfield a nine-point gap, 28-19, to make up with nearly a full quarter to play.
The ensuing kickoff sparked an outcry from the Bison coaches as Lezzer took the ball at his own 12, and managed to get just outside the 20, however one of the Bellefonte defenders came in on a late tackle, colliding helmet-to-helmet with Lezzer, and forcing the junior wide receiver to come out of the game for the fourth time. This hit drew an unsportsmanlike penalty, the third in the half, and gave Clearfield a chance. The Bison drove down, but stalled at the seven-yard line, and Janocko knew points were of value, so he sent Hess out for the field goal. But, in all the haste, the team didn’t get enough players on the line before the play clock ran out, meaning the delay of game forced a 24-yard field goal try to now be a 29-yard attempt.
Hess went for it, but the ball hooked left, and Bellefonte took over.
The Red Raiders had to punt, and it gave Clearfield another opportunity to possibly pull the game within reach. The following drive was highlighted by not one, but three, 15-yard penalties. One came against Clearfield for a face mask on what was a first-down passing play to Domico, but then the next play where Billotte went for a 4-yard run saw him be pulled down from his face mask, giving the Bison a quick first down. Clearfield got another 12 free yards on a pass interference call in the end zone, but then saw all their hopes begin to fade.
Zattoni was stopped for a loss on first down, then Domico was dropped for a loss on the next play on a pass from Billotte. The third down pass to Firanski was unfortunate as he was wide open for the first down, but the ball bounced right off his hands.
It came down to one play, which became an even greater challenge as another delay of game made the deciding call to be 4th and 20, so Janocko decided to go for it all. Billotte rolled out for the pass to the right, looking for Lezzer, but the ball was over his head and despite tight coverage, no interference was called, and at that point the undefeated record for Clearfield came to an end.
“You can’t expect to win every game, but we played a hard-fought game,” Janocko said. “We played through some injuries, some adversity, and we’ve got a lot of football left to play.”
Although the win was a setback in the standings of the Mountain League, as now Bellefonte held the tie-breaker, Janocko knew that with how both teams were playing both on this night and in previous games, Friday’s contest may not be the last time the two squads met. With both teams looking as though the post season would be in their futures, optimism for his team to have a possible rematch was in the cards.
“It could happen,” Janocko said. “With how we have played this season, even tonight, and how they played all season, it may.”
Clearfield (5-1) returns to the Bison Sports Complex next Friday night when they host Tyrone.
QUICK STATS: 1-Both teams combined for 16 penalties on the night, with nine being personal fouls; 2-Lezzer finished with only 36 yards receiving, as he was limited following four injury timeouts; 3-C.J. Funk finished with 145 yards rushing, the most allowed by a single rusher against the Bison defense this season.
SCORE BY QUARTER
Clearfield 0 19 0 0 – 19
Bellefonte 8 7 6 7 – 28
RED RAIDERS: Rossman 18-yard pass to Grey (Emel pass to Nadolsky), 3:40
BISON: Zattoni 2-yard run (Zattoni run failed), 10:02
RED RAIDERS: Rossman 8-yard pass to Lehman (Rossman kick), 6:43
BISON: Firanski 4-yard run (Hess kick), 2:34
BISON: O. Billotte 1-yard pass to Domico (O. Billotte pass failed), 0:04
RED RAIDERS: Funk 85-yard run (Rossman kick blocked), 7:45
RED RAIDERS: Rossman 37-yard pass to Grey (Rossman kick), 11:54
First Downs: 20/8
Rush Yards: 176/249
Pass Yards: 152/153
Total Yards: 328/402
Clearfield: Zattoni-19 carries, 60 yards, TD; O. Billotte-15 carries, 44 yards; Plubell-4 carries, 36 yards; Firanski-4 carries, 26 yards, TD; I. Billotte-2 carries, 10 yards.
Bellefonte: Funk-15 carries, 145 yards, TD; Rossman-7 carries, 22 yards; Caparelle-4 carries, 1 yard; Hummel-3 carries, 14 yards; Bauman-2 carries, 47 yards; Emel-1 carry, 10 yards.
Clearfield: O. Billotte-14 for 32, 152 yards, TD, INT.
Bellefonte: Rossman-7 for 8, 153 yards, 3 TD; Funk-0 for 1.
Clearfield: Domico-5 catches, 56 yards, TD; Lezzer-5 catches, 36 yards; Zattoni-2 catches, 20 yards; Kline-1 catch, 33 yards; Pallo-1 catch, 7 yards.
Bellefonte: Grey-2 catches, 46 yards, 2 TD; Nadolsky-1 catch, 48 yards; Paloskey-1 catch, 23 yards; Funk-1 catch, 21 yards; Emel-1 catch, 9 yards; Lehman-1 catch, 8 yards, TD.