LHU football builds momentum into 2019 with 50-48 win over Gannon

By SAM KUPERMAN

For The Express

A blizzard in Erie set up less-than-ideal conditions for the season finale for Lock Haven football. A matchup between two teams with three combined wins was pushed back an hour due to heavy snowfall, which persisted throughout the game.

The teams traded blows throughout the day but ultimately Lock Haven (2-9) prevailed over Gannon (2-9) to build some momentum heading into 2019.

“The trip was an arduous one, but it was a very exhilarating one as well,” LHU coach Dave Taynor said.

Lock Haven had to take shelter inside Gannon’s indoor facility while the field got cleared off, but stayed warm and came out firing after the opening kickoff.

The Bald Eagles had been plagued by slow starts throughout the season, but scored on the opening drive with redshirt-senior quarterback Cameron Tobias (21-36, 363 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) hitting Bryan Greene (4 catches, 77 yards, 1 TD, 4 rushes, 18 yards) for a 9-yard strike. The score was 6-0 after a blocked PAT.

While snow games are typically associated with minimal passing and more of a run-heavy approach, LHU had different ideas. The Bald Eagles threw the ball 40 times on the day, as Taynor says his team threw more than initially planned as a result of the weather.

“Anytime you’re on a surface that’s less-than-true, you have receivers that know where they’re going and DB’s that aren’t aware of where they’re going, Taynor said. “It allows you to kind of exacerbate matchups that you think are good matchups.”

Just as there was an onslaught of snow throughout the day, an avalanche of rushing yards amounted for Gannon senior running back Marcus Jones. The 2017 All-American got the rock early and often, piling up 410 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on the day. Jones’ yardage is the third-most in a single game in Division II history and he was the only player to find pay dirt for the Golden Knights.

Jones reached the end zone from 63 and 57 yards respectively on each of Gannon’s first two drives, giving the Golden Knights a 14-6 lead early in the first quarter.

“Well, the first things is I’m just happy he’s [Jones] not back next year when we play them at the end of the year,” Taynor said. “He’s a difference-maker. If you miss one tackle in the backfield he can make you pay for 50 or 60 at the snap of a finger. It was obvious that he was their horse and they were gonna ride him.”

Lock Haven answered right back with another Tobias touchdown, this time to Jalen Jackson (8 catches, 136 yards, 3 TD) from seven yards out. The two connected right after this on a successful two-point conversion to tie the game at 14 with 5:32 remaining in the first quarter. The versatile sophomore tight end from Williamsport finished with the best statistical game of his young career.

“We felt like we could get Jalen going versus their hang-player,” Taynor said. “We went after number 85 [freshman defensive back Jacob Yost] a little bit with him. Jalen had a good day.”

The pace of the game would follow the early trend, with a combined 1,093 total yards of offense accounted for between the teams. The score seesawed back and forth all day as well.

The second quarter started with another Jones score, but Lock Haven would command the remainder of the frame. Passing touchdowns from Tobias to Jackson and running back Chantz Swartz (11 rushes, 25 yards, 1 TD, 4 catches, 55 yards 1 TD) would put LHU in front. Then Ralph Hyland (13 rushes, 119 yards, 1 TD) sprinted in on a 7-yard score late in the half to give the Bald Eagles a 35-20 edge at halftime.

While Lock Haven went with the aerial attack on this slippery afternoon Gannon opted for the opposite approach. The Golden Knights let Jones carry them as far as he could go, only throwing the ball with third-string quarterback Cody Callaway five times in the first half.

The third quarter only featured one score, a 43-yard Jones run. Jones then ran it in on a two-point conversion to move the score to 35-28 Lock Haven, heading into the final quarter of both of these teams’ seasons.

The need for a momentum-building win was crucial for both programs, but especially Lock Haven. The Bald Eagles will only lose five seniors from this year’s team, and return all of their defensive starters. In the week of practice leading up to this contest Taynor preached to his team that this game was the start of 2019.

“We even changed our goal-boards to 2019, this is game one of the 2019 season,” Taynor said Tuesday at the LHU Coaches Show.

Three touchdowns were scored within the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. A Tobias to Jackson score for Lock Haven, followed by a Jones run for Gannon and an LHU rush from Swartz set the score at 50-36 Lock Haven with 11:48 to play.

The Golden Knights got Jones across the goal line again on the following drive, before intercepting Tobias on the very first play of the team’s next defensive stand. All of a sudden Gannon had the ball at its own 28 down 50-42 with 6:42 still to play.

“If we were gonna win it offensively there were about four scores we left on the board in the second half,” Taynor said. “Legitimately I feel like that was a game, this is gonna sound wild to say, but we should’ve scored over 70 points in.”

Jones ran it in one more time, first getting 54 yards down the field to the one, then plunging in for the TD. Gannon couldn’t tie it though, failing to spring Jones in on a two-point conversion attempt. The scoreboard read 50-48 Lock Haven with 5:28 remaining.

LHU didn’t milk the clock well late, but the late-game defensive stops were the difference in this scoring frenzy.

“I was very proud with our defense the last two series’,” Taynor said. “That’s one of the things I share with our defense at the end of every game and I’ve always believed this; when you have a shootout it’s the defense that makes the best plays in the most crucial situations that helps you get a win. When you’re in a low-scoring affair it’s the offense that comes up with the big play that puts you over the edge.”

Lock Haven had been chewed up defensively all season long, allowing the most points in the PSAC during the regular season. A plethora of freshmen and sophomores aligned the Bald Eagles’ 3-4 defense throughout 2018. But that stopped conversion and a game-sealing interception by freshman linebacker Austin Barber were enough to allow LHU to leave McConnell Family Stadium with the victory.

Gannon curiously threw the ball ten times in the final 5:28. It was surprising to see that much of Callaway late. He finished 9-16 with 70 passing yards and the pick.

In the win, Lock Haven sophomore linebacker Obadiah Asare capped off a superb campaign with a team-high 15 tackles and 2 tackles-for-loss. His 19.5 TFL in 2018 set a new single-season program record. Taynor believes his 6’3 230 chiseled linebacker has the potential to do so much more as he continues his career.

“His ceiling is still much higher,” Taynor said. “There are a lot of potential areas he can improve in. So as we go into the offseason right now I look for him to dedicate himself to doing that. He’s a guy that should be, from an ability standpoint, a 20-plus tackles for loss a year guy.”

While Asare and that defense will return, Lock Haven does say goodbye to five seniors. Tobias, along with Brent Crushong, Blake Kovin, David Staton, and Jimmy Strickland had the chance to finish their time at LHU in style, something that only so many teams can accomplish.

“You always want to try to do your best in the last game of the year to send your seniors out as winners, Taynor said. And the reality is 50 percent of the teams get to do that and 50 percent don’t. So it was a good experience for those guys to fight for a four-quarter game and win one. Winning a close game and a four-quarter game is always a very exhilarating thing to do.”

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