Tigers’ Duo Keys Santa Bowl Victory
GLENVILLE, Pa.- Every sports season has its beginning point. Every season also has its challenges.
Saturday afternoon proved to be the intersection of those two realities for the Hanover Rhinos as they dropped a 26-6 decision to the rival Franklin County Tigers in Santa Bowl VII, the annual charity football game benefitting Toys for Tots in the Hanover-area.
“Well, a lot of guys that showed up today had been to maybe one or two practices in the last two or three months,” Rhinos’ head coach Noah Sneeringer said. “That’s tough to do, to try to come up with a gameplan on the fly like we had to this morning.”
Exactly half of the 36 players in uniform for the Rhinos in the Santa Bowl had never played a game for Hanover before. But the Santa Bowl provides the nurturing and growing environment found in the first exhibition game of the year.
“We saw some stuff we need to work on, some positions that we need to fill,” Sneeringer added. “That’s what today was all about, out here, have fun, charity game, and we learned about ourselves.”
The Franklin County Tigers are a veteran team coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances, and they are looking to take that next step from playoff team to championship contender. Despite missing a number of their regular contributors, the Tigers were led by some familiar faces on Saturday.
Stepping in for starting quarterback Mark Cantu, who is on paternity leave, was Tigers’ player-owner Josh Leininger. Leininger turned back the clock to his 2015 form, when he led the Atlantic Football Association in completion percentage. He completed 12-of-18 passes for 160 yards and two deep-ball scores, securing a quarterback rating of 131.7 in the process.
He was only slightly upstaged by third-string running back Isaiah Keyes. With Reggie Russ and Darren Gardner out of the lineup, the Tigers may have found a new toy to play with on offense.
Always known for his razor-sharp closing speed on defense and electrifying explosiveness in the return game, Keyes only touched the ball twice on offense all of last season. however, he carved up the Rhinos’ defense for 130 yards on 11 carries, and added 30 yards on 3 catches to earn Santa Bowl VII MVP honors. It is the first MVP awarded in the Santa Bowl’s history.
Franklin County took the opening kickoff and moved 56 yards in nine plays to reach the Hanover 9-yard line. They were heavily-aided by a questionable personal foul called on defensive end Bryan Hammond for finishing a play strong and bringing down the ballcarrier right as the whistle sounded.
The penalty was called by Rhinos’ team president Chris Bunty, who was pressed into officiating duty along with several coaches from both teams after the original officiating crew called to cancel two hours before the game.
Lacking a penalty flag to throw, Bunty stooped down and picked up a stray corn stalk that was laying on the field and hoisted it skyward to alert everyone that a call was being made.
“Bunty needs to open up a rulebook and not quit his day job,” Sneeringer said with a laugh.
Adding to the fun atmosphere of the game was Bunty being subject to the “Sneeringer third-degree” that is usually saved for side judges and the occasional mouthy opponent.
Two quarterback hurries by Jordan Gardner short-circuited the Franklin County offense in the opening goal-to-go situation, and Ty McKeon’s dropped pass in the corner of the end zone brought up a 4th-down field goal attempt by Roger Reitz.
The kick was low, and Brian Eckard blasted through the line and blocked the kick.
The Rhinos took over on their own 10 following a short return of the blocked kick. Jake Orner took the start at quarterback, and rifled two passes to Raydel Ragland on the second and third plays of the drive for a total of 49 yards. Ragland fumbled after the second catch, but Tristan Simpkins was Johhy-on-the-spot, recovering the ball and advancing it another 15 yards to the Tigers’ 25.
Shawn Simmons went to work like a short-yardage sledgehammer, converting 4th-and-6 behind blocks from Deron Brogden and Mike Lowery, but the drive died on the next set of downs.
Franklin County marched 80 yards in 7 plays, scoring midway through the second quarter on Leininger’s majestic pass down the visiting sideline into the streaking arms of Dustin Eutzy in the end zone. Reitz’ extra point made the lead 7-0.
Hurt by a false start penalty, the Rhinos promptly responded with a three-and-out, and a short punt by Gary Ondecko, Jr. set the Tigers up at Hanover’s 41. However, Franklin County ran out of time, as halftime hit after just three plays.
Corbin Bailey took the reins to the offense as the second half began with the Rhinos in possession of the ball. His first play was an 11-yard quarterback scramble, but that was followed up by a delay of game penalty before the next snap, and the Hanover offense couldn’t recover.
Ondecko, Jr. punted the Tigers back to their own 30, where Keyes began to wear on the Hanover defense.
Runs of 10 and 5 started the drive, and then the speedster caught a swing pass and took it for 9 yards. On 3rd-and-1, Joshua Honorat exploded down the home sideline for 30 yards. Bunty tried to call a face mask penalty on Isaac Tynes on the tackle, but waved it off.
The circus came to town on the very next play. Leininger pump-faked to Nathan Huff off the snap, and the talented receiver broke wide-open on a double move. Leininger fired the ball up the seam to Huff, who boxed the ball, nearly dropped it, regathered, juggled the ball like Anthony Gatto, and finally fell to the grass in the end zone with the ball secured in his grasp. Another successful kick by Reitz pushed the lead to 14-0.
Facing the daunting task of trying to erase a two-score deficit late in the third, the Bailey-led offense went to work. After starting with an incompletion to a wide-open Samuel Shea, Bailey sizzled a perfect slant pass onto the hands of Jared Whitten for 11 yards and a first down.
Zach Deneen followed with draw runs of 11 and 5 yards, and Franklin County tossed in a defensive holding penalty to grease the offensive wheels.
Now facing 4th-and-9 from the Franklin County 25, Bailey did his thing, staying alive in the pocket and heaving one up for Ragland, who caught the pass on the right hash for 17 yards and a first down.
On first and goal from the 9, Deneen took the handoff and bowled over several defenders in the hole on his way into the end zone. Once there, he lept in the air and violently spiked the ball.
“I didn’t plan that,” Deneen said of the celebration. “I felt pretty good running through three or four people there, and it just kinda happened.”
Deneen led the Rhinos in rushing on the afternoon with 37 yards on 6 carries.
The two-point try failed when Jawaun Huff planted Bailey in the pocket immediately.
It took Franklin County all of three plays to answer early in the 4th quarter.
Keyes delivered the knockout blow on a stretch play to the right.
Chris Conley raced down from his safety spot to hold contain on an otherwise wide-open edge, so Keyes cut back and found nothing but green grass down the middle of the field.
Leininger aborted the extra point try after juggling the snap and was brought down in the backfield, keeping the score at 20-6 with over 13 minutes to go.
Hanover saw any hope at a similar comeback attempt to the one they staged against Franklin County last year slip away when Bailey lost a fumble on a second down scramble at the Franklin County 32 a few plays into the ensuing drive.
Defensively, the Rhinos were led by T.J. McCauley, who logged 5 tackles and a pass-breakup, and Shawn Simmons, who posted 6 stops in only about one half of play. Charles Smith did something he’d never done in the regular season when he sacked Leininger in the 4th quarter. Bryan Hammond also had a strong game, logging the most single-game tackles he ever has as a Rhino with 3, including a tackle for loss.