It was a valuable lesson for the Penns Valley Rams on Friday night.
When you get into the red zone, you better walk away with points.
Twice the Rams marched inside the 10-yard-line only to be denied in their season opener, and it proved to be the difference in the game.
“That was frustrating,” quarterback Ben Alexander said. “Some of the younger guys (were) a little jittery. We’ve got to bounce back. We can’t do that again. We’ve got to get in 100 percent of the time when we’re in the red zone.”
Juniata used a quick-strike offense and made a couple big defensive stands to chalk up a 29-16 victory.
Chantz Swartz was an offensive force, with 13 carries for 164 yards, two pass receptions for 101 yards and three long touchdowns for the Indians.
“The offense was able to move the ball,” Juniata coach Gary Klingensmith said. “We could score long, which is big.”
Wyatt Sharp led the Rams on the ground with 162 yards and a score on 17 carries, while Alexander had 98 yards on 22 rushing attempts, and added 106 yards on 6 of 20 passing.
“He grew up an awful lot tonight,” coach Martin Tobias said of Alexander. “He learned how to play under fire and he came out standing tall when all is said and done.”
Swartz accounted for both first-half touchdowns.
On the first play after a Penns Valley punt, quarterback Tyler Clark rolled left and hit Swartz on a short strike, and the junior back did the rest for 65 yards.
It took two plays for his second-quarter score, when he scampered in from 28 yards away.
In between, the Rams had marched 67 yards to the Indian 8 and were poised to tie the game before a fumble thwarted the effort.
A long kick return to open the second half by Corby Woodring jump-started the Rams, and they needed just four plays to finally get on the scoreboard when Sharp rumbled 29 yards.
“He’s tough,” Klingensmith said. “He’s a big bruiser. I think moreso you have to take care of the quarterback on the outside. When you have a quarterback that can run like that, you have to take care of the outside and that opens it up for that bruiser in the middle. That’s a tough combination to stop.”
Juniata then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Rams the ball again at the Indian 35. Three plays later what looked to be a sure touchdown pass was dropped, and after later reaching the 7, Penns Valley began losing ground and on fourth down an Alexander pass was intercepted.
“We may have gotten a little too excited,” Alexander said. “We needed to keep our composure.”
“It changed the momentum,” Swartz said. “Then we got some stops and got the ball back and scored. That helped.”
Starting at their own 8, Juniata went all the way to the other end in 14 plays, capped by a Spencer Page run.
“That’s very frustrating,” Tobias said. “We missed opportunities. We had a couple chances, both in the first half and the second half. It was right there for us and they turned us away. We didn’t capitalize.”
Penns Valley still had life until a toss play to Swartz with just over three minutes left turned into a 72-yard score and the final nail on the evening.
“The guard and tackle came out, and the flow was going to the left,” Swartz said. “I cut back, Dylan Loudenslager, the center, hit his guy to the left (and I) cut back.”
The Rams knew they couldn’t afford to give up big plays, and Swartz picked up 137 yards on two of his scores.
“That’s one of the things we talked to the kids about in the locker room afterwards,” Tobias said. “They’re the ones who said, ‘We need to limit the big plays,’ and they hit the nail on the head. We gave up two big plays and that was the difference in the ballgame.”
Penns Valley fought to the end, with Alexander hitting Sean Beamesderfer on a six-yard score with 16 seconds left, and the Rams even recovered the onside kick, but the hole was too deep.
They knew they had their chances Friday night.
“I don’t think you saw our kids hang their heads at all throughout the night,” Tobias said. “I was extremely proud of them for that. They could have packed it in at a couple different points in the game and they never did.”