STATE COLLEGE — State College's Mid-Penn games at Memorial Field often take a zany twist, with a mega-play or odd bounce providing a shake-your-head moment.
Understanding the venue’s crazy Mid-Penn history, Harrisburg coach Calvin Everett never felt comfortable Friday.
“I was concerned the whole time,” he said. “I had to keep the kids focused and make sure they keep playing hard.” Mission accomplished.
The Cougars prevented any stunning rallies by using four quarters of quality football to overpower the Little Lions 33-12.
With 6:40 left, State College’s Darian Herncane made a leaping 34-yard touchdown reception to trim the lead 27-12. Knowing strange things have happened on his team’s home field — two years ago Harrisburg scored two touchdowns in the final minute to earn a shocking win — State College coach Al Wolski ordered on onside kick.
Domonique Lewis cleanly fielded the ball. Less than three minutes later, Harrisburg (3-1) added an insurance touchdown.
“This right here means a lot to our program,” said Everett, whose team went 1-9 and lost to State College 28-0 last year. “To come up here on their homecoming on their turf and in this type of environment. ...It’s huge for our program.”
The Cougars are the first team to solve the Little Lions (3-1). State College opened the season with victories over Bethlehem Liberty, Central Mountain and Father Judge.
No member of the trio resembled Harrisburg.
“We saw them on film,” Wolski said. “We knew what they would be like. We knew we had to play as well as we possibly could to hang in there with them.”
Herncane’s 34-yard punt return and Dan Fry’s interception allowed State College to start two first-half drives deep in Harrisburg territory. The Cougars’ swift defense yielded little, holding State College to two first downs in the half. The Cougars led 13-3 at halftime.
Herncane started the second half with 49-yard kickoff return and Ian Fennessey kicked a 33-yard field goal to cut the lead to 13-6.
Herncane, who collected 148 all-purpose yards, was the only Little Lion to maneuver around the Cougars. Harrisburg out-gained State College 392- 186. The Cougars held the Little Lions to 62 rushing yards on 21 carries.
“The made plays and we didn’t,” Wolski said. “We had some opportunities, but we just didn’t do what we needed to do. We knew we needed to play a near perfect game.”
The Cougars started running downhill immediately, embarking on an opening drive that lasted 11 plays, used 6:05 and traveled 80 yards. The drive ended with Robert Martin’s 10-yard touchdown run.
Martin was one of three Cougars to score a rushing a touchdown. Domonique Shurns, who gained 109 yards on 16 carries, scored in the second and fourth quarters. Darian Davis-Ray had a 1-yard touchdown to give the Cougars a 27-6 lead with 7:55 left.
Jalen Williams didn’t score. But the 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior needed just six second-half carries to gain 148 yards. Williams had the game’s two longest plays, busting runs of 55 and 60 yards.
“He’s electric,” Everett said. “I have been telling people all along we have a really good set of running backs and they are getting better and better.”
State College exhausted all of its running options, giving carries to six players. Nobody gained more than 28 yards. The Little Lions collected just two rushing first downs.
“Their speed hurt and all their defensive players could run,” Wolski said. “They ran to the ball extremely well. We were trying to find something that would work and we didn’t find anything.”
The Little Lions will be forced to play at a rapid pace again next week. They visit defending PIAA Class AAAA champion Central Dauphin.
“We learned we have to get better,” Wolski said.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy