PUNXSUTAWNEY — The Punxsy Chucks trailed by six at halftime, and the defense came out and forced the Clarion Bobcats into three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the second half, but the Bobcats' defense stopped the Chucks offense twice inside the 10-yard line to shut the Chucks out in the second half and earn a 19-7 win Friday night in Punxsutawney.
Because of Punxsy's shutdown defense, the Chucks outdid Clarion on the stat sheet, but the Bobcats bend-but-don't-break style of defense came through for them in the end.
"Overall, I think the stats speak for themselves," Punxsy head coach Alan Nichol said. "But you've got to make sure everyone's on the same page. Seasoned teams that are running on all cylinders right now are teams that are going to do well. It was an entertaining game, but unfortunately, we came up short."
Turnovers were the story in the first half with each team committing two.
Punxsy notched the first turnover after Clarion forced the Chucks to punt on their opening drive.
Clarion's drive started with promise when it picked up a first down on a 15-yard run by Camron Kirkland, but a 10-yard holding penalty two plays later forced the Bobcats into a third-and-long.
Punxsy's Luke Janocha stepped in front of a pass by Clarion quarterback Brandon Heeter, and returned the ball all the way to the Clarion 19.
Clarion forced Punxsy into third-and-long by stopping Alex Fedigan in the backfield and forcing an incomplete pass by Punxsy quarterback Garrett Zimmerman, but on third-and-13, Zimmerman connected with Josh Neal. Neal caught the ball three yards short of the sticks, but fought for four yards to give the Chucks a first-and-goal at the seven.
On second down, Zimmerman dropped back and found Janocha in stride on a slant route, and Janocha cashed in for the score.
Josh Neal added the extra point to give the Chucks an early 7-0 lead just eight minutes into the game.
Unfortunately for the Chucks, Clarion didn't wait long to answer the score.
On the second play of the Bobcats' second drive, Kirkland ran a sweep around the end and gained the edge, scampering 63 yards for a touchdown.
Tanner Klein added the extra point for Clarion to even the score at seven.
On the ensuing kickoff, Janocha picked up the ball deep in Chucks' territory and returned it to the 44 yard line, setting up good field position for Punxsy.
On second-and-9, though, Clarion's Jason Boenke stepped in front of a Zimmerman pass and was off to the races. The Chucks finally caught up with him at the 34-yard line, but the good field position had been handed over to the Bobcats.
Punxsy's defense came up big again after Kirkland tried to run a sweep again and was tripped up in the backfield by Punxsy linebacker Jamie Bush. Bush's tackle set up another third-and-long, and this time Clayton Dale picked off Heeter to give the Chucks the ball at their own 13-yard line.
As the first-quarter clock wound down, Punxsy set out on a 10-play drive that took them from their own 13 inside the Bobcats' five-yard line.
On third-and-goal, Clarion's defense came up with another big turnover, forcing a fumble, and Clarion returned the ball all the way down to the Chucks' 13.
From there, it took the Bobcats five plays to score, capped off by a Heeter keeper for a three-yard touchdown run.
"Well, the big play was that goal line fumble," Nichol said. "We didn't get the right formation, and next thing you know, they got the turnover, and they're down to our 13. That's a swing of 14 points. If we put the ball in, they don't get those points, either."
The point-after was missed by Clarion, keeping the score at 13-7, but Heeter's score proved to be enough, as the Bobcats' defense settled in and kept the Chucks out of the end zone for the rest of the game.
With less than four minutes left in the half, Clarion threatened again, but Punxsy forced a turnover on downs after Robbie Barnes tracked down Kirkland in the backfield.
Punxsy tried to muster a late rally starting at their 28, but after two completions, one to Neal for 12 yards and one to Janocha for 11, Zimmerman was sacked for a seven-yard loss, and the clock expired on the Chucks' drive.
Both defenses used very different styles to keep their opponents at bay in the second half. Punxsy forced three consecutive three-and-outs before Clarion benefited from a 39-yard pass from Heeter to Kirkland to set up the Bobcats' final score, and Clarion's defense allowed several long drives — including two inside their own 20 — but forced turnovers on downs each time the Chucks theatened.
Punxsy's first trip into the red zone was set up by a 55-yard run by Fedigan, but Clarion stopped Caesar Maruca on a fourth-and-one to regain possession.
The Chucks' second effort inside the Bobcats' 20 was highlighted by a 40-yard play-action screen pass to Fedigan, but Clarion's defense buckled down again and sacked Zimmerman on second down, forced an incompletion and sacked Zimmerman again on fourth-and-goal from the 15.
Clarion's final scoring drive was capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Marcus Smerker with just under three minutes remaining, and the two-point conversion was no good, but Clarion had the breathing room it needed.
Punxsy had one last shot with the ball but went three-and-out and punted away to Clarion, which knelt on three consecutive plays to burn the rest of the clock.
"I think things are starting to come together," Nichol said. "Difficulties can arise when you have a smaller squad. Josh Neal played his first game at strong safety for us tonight. And you have guys moving around a bit,but we've got to eliminate mental mistakes. Physically, we played a good game, and from my standpoint, we outplayed them for a good portion of the game, but we've got to figure out how to win."
Even though Punxsy came up short Friday, Nichol said there are lots of positives he saw in the loss. One of those positives was the running game.
"It was good to see our running game do so well," he said. "Alex had a good game, and our offensive line opened some big holes. You've got to give credit to those guys — Jordan London, Jake Shiock, Matt Rowland, Tyler Titus, Jonathan Smeal and sometimes Robbie Barnes."
Nichol also liked the fight he saw in his team throughout the second half.
"We battled back there after halftime," he said. "Unfortunately, we had some guys miss some plays with some nicks and bruises. All we can do is press on and take the good things we've done and try to build on them."
Another positive for the Chucks was their ability to stop Clarion's star running back T.J. Armstrong. The Chucks limited him to 21 yards, and Nichol attributed that to the play of his interior defenders.
"Jamie Bush and Hayden Muth did really well inside with Shiock and Robbie Barnes," he said. "They did a nice job in there, which gave us a real lift, but then they attacked the flanks, and we had to come up with some plays."
It's not often a coach is so positive after a loss, but Nichol was very pleased with his team's effort and understands that sometimes a good game doesn't always result in a win.
"We played it tough to the end," he said. "And we're going to get back to work and see what happens. I'm not discouraged at all. It was an exciting football game. Now, we've got to find a way to come out on top, and I know that we will."
Nichol also noted it was great to see the support from the hometown fans.
"It really was great to have such a good crowd come out to support us tonight," he said. "That really makes a difference."
Next Friday, the Chucks travel to West Sunbury to face undefeated Moniteau.