KNOX - If there is one thing that can be said about the 2021 edition of Union/A-C Valley football team is the Falcon Knights are a resilient bunch.
Union/A-C Valley shook off a quarter-and-a-half of disastrous football wherein the Falcon Knights spotted 18 points to Keystone with the Panthers returning the opening kickoff for touchdown, returning an interception for a touchdown and a blocking a punt that led to a touchdown but Union/A-C Valley shook off the early catastrophe for 26-straight points held off a late rally by Keystone for a 26-24 win Thursday night (Oct. 7).
"This win has to (rank) right up there," Union/A-C Valley head coach Brad Dittman said. "This is a heck of a win for these guys. A heck of a win."
Dittman continued, "It's always a dog fight against Keystone. We have had some close battles with them. Three out of the past four times we have played them, the game has been within one score. We know we got to buckle up (our chinstraps) extra tight and put in our mouthpieces when we play Keystone."
Moreover, the Falcon Knights turned the ball over five times in the opening frame with Bailey Crissman getting two of his passes picked off while Union/A-C Valley lost three fumbles.
"To turn the ball over that many times and to come out of her with a win is a good job by our guys," Dittman said.
Falcon Knights' cornerback Skyler Roxbury gave Union/A-C Valley its go-ahead score by intercepting Keystone quarterback Bret Wingard's pass 25 yards for a score.
"It felt amazing," Roxbury said about his interception return for touchdown. "It changed the momentum of the game when we really needed it."
The win puts Union/A-C Valley into a three-way tie with Keystone and Redbank Valley for first place in the District 9 Small School South standings.
The Union/A-C Valley defense played a key role in the win as they kept the Panthers from putting together a sustained drive the entire game as the Falcon Knights forced six three-and-out possessions from Keystone. The Falcon Knights held the Panthers to 169 total yards and just five first downs.
"I think we did a pretty good job against (Keystone) up front," Dittman said. "I think we were able to shut down their run game."
The Falcon Knights held the Panthers running game to 1.1 yards per carry (23 rushes for 26 yards).
Keystone head coach Ryan Smith feels his team needs to make some major changes to improve its running game.
"We have to go back to the tape sessions, try to find out how to get guys off the ball, how to move people," Smith said. "(Union/A-C Valley) was just stronger than us. They moved us. They put pressure (up front). They met us at the line and we weren't able to move people and a lot of that starts in the summertime."
The Panthers Kyle Nellis opened the game in grand style for Keystone as he fielded a squibbed kickoff at the Panthers' 25 broke a couple of tackles and outraced the Falcon Knights' special teams unit to the end zone for a 75-yard kickoff return for touchdown.
Nick Cosper's PAT kick bounced off the right upright and was no good but the Panthers held a 6-0 lead 18 seconds into the contest.
It looked like the Falcon Knights (5-1 overall, 2-1 District 9 Small School South) were going to answer the Panthers' score in short order as Mikey Card broke off a 48-yard gain on the Falcon Knights' first play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession. However, the Panthers' defense stiffened and a host of Keystone defenders led by Drew Slaugenhaupt dropped Caden Rainey for a 6-yard loss on a fourth-and-5 giving the Panthers the ball back at their own 27.
Keystone (5-1, 3-1) went three-and-out on the following possession. Panthers' punter Izaiah Yargar's punt only traveled 17 yards and went out of bounds at the Keystone 44.
The Panthers' punt unit appeared to make a concerted effort to keep the ball away from Union/A-C Valley's dangerous return man Rainey as most of Yargar's kicks went out of bounds.
The Falcon Knights' drive stalled after three plays and Union/A-C Valley was forced to punt. Crissman kicked a punt the Falcon Knights downed at the Keystone 3.
Wingard got the Panthers out of the shadow of their own goal posts by firing a 27-yard strike to Tyler Albright. Keystone's drive stalled at its own 40 and the Panthers were forced to punt.
Two plays after the punt, a Keystone defensive lineman Brock Champluvier batted a Crissman pass up in the air and Nellis swooped in to make an interception and he glided untouched 47 yards for the touchdown.
Keystone's two-point conversion run attempt failed as the Panthers took a 12-0 lead with 2:23 remaining in the first quarter.
The following Union/A-C Valley drive ended in disaster as Card fumbled on the second play of the march and Keystone recovered at the Union/A-C Valley 41.
The Panthers drove to the Falcon Knights 23 with Wingard connecting on a 16-yard pass to Zander McHenry and Wingard had a 20-yard run. But the Keystone drive stalled as Wingard's third and fourth down passes fell incomplete.
The Falcon Knights weren't able to mount a drive and were forced to punt three plays after the turnover on downs. Crissman had trouble fielding a low center snap on the punt attempt. By the time Crissman recovered, his punt attempt was blocked by Zachary Taylor and the Panthers recovered the ball at the Falcon Knight 1.
Wingard plunged into the end zone on the quarterback sneak one play after the block.
Cosper missed the extra-point kick but Keystone held a commanding 18-0 lead with 8:49 remaining in the first half.
The Falcon Knights saw their next two drives end via fumble near midfield.
Yet, the Panthers couldn't capitalize on the miscues which would come back to haunt Keystone.
The Falcon Knights shook off their early troubles by putting together a nine-play, 60-yard drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown strike from Trey Fleming to Ryan Cooper.
"That was a big touchdown for us and it gave us momentum," Dittman said. "We needed to get points on the board there."
A key play on the drive was a 24-yard pass from Crissman to Roxbury. Crissman was rushed on the play and threw a desparation pass to Crissman who was blanketed by Wingard. Both Wingard and Roxbury had their hands on the ball but somehow Roxbury pulled in the pass at the Keystone 34.
Later in the drive, Card pulled in a pass from a rushed Crissman and turned it into a 7-yard gain and a first down.
Fleming had to finish the drive under center because Crissman was injured on the pass play to Card.
The Panthers stopped Rainey on a two-point conversion run attempt but the Falcon Knights trimmed the Keystone lead to 18-6 heading into the break.
According to Roxbury, coach Dittman was very even-keeled in the locker room during halftime with his team.
"He told us to just play our game and be us and that's just what we did," Roxbury said about coach Dittman.
The Falcon Knights came out of the break hot with Crissman finding Roxbury for a 26-yard gain to put Union/A-C Valley at the Keystone 34. But on the next play, Keystone's McHenry picked off Crissman's pass at the Panther 30.
Keystone's Nellis broke off runs of 4 and 6 yards in succession to give Keystone a first down but the Panthers drive stalled and they were forced to punt.
Facing a third-and-6 at their own 48, Crissman threw a wide receiver screen to Rainey behind the line of scrimmage; Rainey made a man miss, and galloped to the end zone for the 52-yard touchdown.
Crissman finished the night completing 10-of-22 passes for 141 yards with one TD and two interceptions.
Crissman found Cooper for the two-point conversion trimming the Keystone lead to 18-14 with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Falcons Knights' offense would get the team their first lead as Union/A-C Valley drove to the Keystone 8 but Crissman's pass on fourth-and-goal fell incomplete and the Panthers took over.
The Falcon Knights drive was abbreviated as Rainey returned a Yargar punt from near midfield to the Keystone 35.
Two plays after the turnover on downs, Roxbury came swooping in to pick off Wingard's pass attempt near the left sideline. Roxbury broke a bevy of tackles and worked his way into the end zone for the 25-yard return for touchdown.
Rainey made a leaping grab on Crissman's two-point conversion fade pass but he landed out of bounds but the Falcon Knights held their first lead of the night taking a 20-18 advantage with 8:03 remaining in regulation.
The Panthers offense stalled on the following possession and Keystone was forced to punt after three plays. Yargar had trouble with the snap and took off to run but was tackled by Dawson Camper and the Falcon Knights took over at the Keystone 20.
The Falcon Knights capitalized on the short field four plays later when Card rumbled into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.
Card had 103 yards rushing on 14 carries with a touchdown.
A key play on the abbreviated drive was a 12-yard pass from Crissman to Camper which gave the Falcon Knights a first down at the Keystone 7.
Colton Murray missed the extra-point kick but Union/A-C Valley swelled its lead to 24-16 with 5:24 left in regulation.
On the ensuing kickoff, Keystone was flagged for two penalties. The Panthers were issued a 15-yard penalty for a sideline violation plus Keystone was flagged for 15 yards for an unsportsmanlike foul on the Panther bench.
Penalties were an issue for Keystone the whole game as the Panthers committed 13 fouls for 103 yards.
On the second play of the subsequent drive, Keystone was flagged for a holding call pushing the Panthers back to their own 20. But the added yardage proved to be no problem for Keystone as Wingard fired a pass down the right sideline that Albright pulled in near midfield and raced to the end zone for the 80-yard touchdown.
The Panthers' attempted to have Albright pass the ball on the two-point conversion attempt after he took a lateral from Nellis but Crissman sniffed out the play and tackled Albright before he could get the pass away keeping the Union/A-C Valley lead at 26-24 with 4:40 left in regulation.
On the following possession, the Falcon Knights faced a third-and-14 from the Keystone 17. Crissman lofted a pass down the left sideline intended for Rainey that appeared to be picked off by Albright. But the officials flagged Albright for interference giving Union/A-C Valley a first down at the Keystone 32.
The Panthers got the ball back on their own 41 with 28 seconds left in the game but Keystone couldn't mount a drive and the Falcon Knights held on for the two point win.
Union/A-C Valley is back in action Thursday (Oct. 14) at Cameron County.
Keystone travels to face Smethport Friday (Oct. 15).
Even though his team fell short, Smith knows the loss to the Falcon Knights isn't the end of the world.
"We're still in the lead in the (District 9 Small School) South division," Smith said. "We'll be the biggest Redbank Valley fans when (Union/A-C Valley) plays them in a couple weeks. We can still win the league because we hold the tiebreaker over Redbank Valley."
UNION/A-C VALLEY 26 , KEYSTONE 24
Union/A-C Valley 0- 6- 8 -12 26
Keystone 12- 6- 0 - 6 24
K Kyle Nellis 75 kickoff return (kick failed), 11:43
K Nellis 47 interception return (run failed), 2:23
K Bret Wingard 1 run (kick failed), 8:49
U/A-C Ryan Cooper 12 pass from Trey Fleming (run failed), :41
U/A-C Caden Rainey 52 pass from Bailey Crissman (Cooper pass from Crissman), 6:12
U/A-C Skyler Roxbury 25 interception return (pass failed), 8:03
U/A-C Mikey Card 4 run (kick failed), 5:24
K Tyler Albright 80 pass from Wingard (run failed), 4:40
TEAM TOTALS (Union/A-C Valley; Keystone)
First Downs: 12; 5
Rushes-Yards: 34-111; 23-26
Passing Yards: 153; 143
Comp-Att-Int: 11-23-2; 6-24-1
Total Yards: 264; 169
Penalties-Yards: 4-40; 13-103
Fumbles-Lost: 4-3; 0-0
Rushing Union/A-C Valley, Mikey Card 14-103, Caden Rainey 7-(-5), Dawson Camper 6-3, Bailey Crissman 5-15, Team 2-(-5). Keystone, Kyle Nellis 15-12, Bret Wingard 4-14, Hunter Shook 1-3, Tyler Albright 1-5, Team 2-(-8).
Passing Union/A-C Valley, Bailey Crissman 10-22-2 141, Trey Fleming 1-1-0 12. Keystone, Bret Wingard 7-24-1 143.
Receiving Union/A-C Valley, Skyler Roxbury 4-68, Mikey Card 2-12, Ryan Cooper 2-21, Caden Rainey 2-52, Dawson Camper 1-12. Keystone, Tyler Albright 4-120, Zander McHenry 1-16, Tyler Pfeiff 1-3, Kyle Nellis 1-4.