Led by defense, Clarion football off to 3-1 start after going 1-10 in ’17
The 2017 season was a forgettable one for the Clarion football team. Disciplinary issues, injuries and inexperience conspired to send the Golden Eagles spiraling to a 1-10 record.
It was a surprising dropoff, considering Clarion won 11 games over coach Chris Weibel’s first two seasons.
As dismal as last season was, however, it helped galvanize the team for 2018. Their travails in the rear-view mirror, the Golden Eagles take a 3-1 record (1-0 PSAC) into Saturday’s game against winless Seton Hill.
“Last year was a tough year,” senior linebacker Layne Skundrich (North Allegheny) said. “A lot of things didn’t go our way. We ramped it up this year. We realized we all have to be bought in 100 percent.”
After losing their season opener to Shippensburg, 35-13, the Golden Eagles have won their past three. The key has been defense. Clarion allowed only two more points to its next three opponents — Lock Haven, Lincoln and Gannon — combined than it allowed to Shippensburg.
Last week against Gannon, Clarion held 2017 Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Marcus Jones to 22 yards rushing on 14 carries. The Golden Eagles rank second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference with 10 interceptions and fourth with 11 sacks — 4 ½ from senior lineman Alec Heldreth.
“Go back a couple of years, and a lot of the defenders who were starters (then) now are seniors,” Weibel said. “They were on the field taking their licks. That contributes to the defense now because they were the same guys who were playing two years ago.
“They have the experience and jell really well together.”
Sophomore Dorian Johnson has helped to solidify the secondary. Recruited as a defensive back, the West Mifflin product was moved to receiver last season but returned to defense this fall and has two interceptions, one behind team leader Sam Fareri (South Park).
Johnson, though, credits the linemen for the success of the pass defense.
“Our D-line is rushing the quarterback, giving him less time and getting a lot of quarterback hurries,” he said.
As effective as the defense has been, offense has come in fits and starts. Weibel said injuries are partially to blame, as Clarion has fielded all five of its starting offensive linemen once this season.
The fluctuation of line personnel has contributed to inconsistent play at quarterback, where junior Jovante Seard (424 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs) and Jeff Clemens (376 yards, 2 TDs, 5 INTs), a junior from North Allegheny, have split time. Weibel said he also continues to search for a core group of receivers to carry the load.
“It doesn’t matter what the offense does,” Skundrich said. “We’re dealing with the offense of the other team on Saturday, and our objective is to shut them down and make sure there’s a zero after their name when the game is over.”
Weibel acknowledged the Golden Eagles might have received a bit of a break from the schedule makers, leaving some of the PSAC juggernauts for the second half of their season. But those will come soon enough.
After Saturday’s game at Offutt Field, Clarion’s next three will be against Cal (Pa.), at No. 2 IUP and versus Edinboro.
A more favorable early-season schedule aside, no one in the Clarion locker room is discounting the importance of a fast start.
“It changed the atmosphere around the players,” Johnson said. “It showed us that we could actually do this. I would say our confidence is getting stronger, but we remain humble. The upcoming games are going to get a lot stronger.”
One year has made a world of difference for the Golden Eagles. No longer beset by off-field issues and inexperience, they are on course for a season similar to 2015, Weibel’s first year at the helm, when they went 7-4.
There appears to have been a culture shift around the program, and the goal now is to keep it going in the right direction.
“The right pieces are in place, from the coaching staff all the way to the players,” Skundrich said. “We’re really believing in our mission. With that, it’s a recipe for success.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.