The game opened with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
It was the start to a wild, back-and-forth contest Friday night at Memorial Field.
State College and Harrisburg traded the lead three times in the first half. The Cougars ripped off 20 unanswered points during one stretch, threatening to turn their Mid Penn Conference clash into a blowout. But the Little Lions executed a fake punt and recovered an onside kick to set up consecutive touchdowns, pulling them within five points heading to the final quarter.
State College ultimately came up short, losing 43-29.
“That’s a great football game,” State College coach Matt Lintal said. “It’s exciting. That’s what it’s about. You play your heart out no matter what’s going on.”
The Little Lions (3-4, 2-2) couldn’t slow Harrisburg’s slew of playmakers, as three different receivers hauled in touchdown passes and contributed to a 219-yard night for quarterback Mikale Clark. Kani Little, one of those receivers, also returned an interception for a touchdown to give Harrisburg its first lead of the game. His touchdown catch in the third quarter gave Harrisburg an 18-point lead that State College couldn’t overcome. The teams combined for 21 penalties in the game.
The Cougars (4-3, 1-3) snapped a three-game losing streak and picked up their first win in conference play.
“To come here and get a victory is huge,” Harrisburg coach Calvin Everett said. “We were facing a lot of adversity, these kids fought through it, remained positive, believed in each other, believed in the program and did an excellent job tonight.”
Harrisburg faced an early hole after Kellin Valentine returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a score.
“We didn’t panic,” Everett said. “We knew it was just the first kick and we wanted to see how the rest of the game unfolded, but we didn’t panic.”
The Cougars evened the score later in the first quarter after putting together a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown keeper by Clark.
Little picked off Weakland’s pass intended for tight end Brett Graham on the ensuing drive and raced into the end zone on the final play of the first quarter. Harrisburg led 14-7.
“That was huge,” Everett said. “We’ve been preaching and preaching all season long about trying to get some points defensively and that was the first time we did that this year.”
State College regained the lead in the second quarter.
Facing third-and-10 at the 48-yard line, Valentine grabbed a 28-yard pass to move State College into the red zone. Four plays later, Kevin Cramer made a 30-yard field goal.
Ten seconds later, State College took the lead.
On the first play of Harrisburg’s next drive, State College’s Pete Haffner recovered a fumble. On the next play, Weakland found Valentine for a 28-yard touchdown. Cramer missed the extra point, and the Little Lions led 16-14 with 2:21 left in the half. Valentine finished with four catches for 79 yards.
“He was a warrior,” Lintal said. “He kept fighting and doing everything he could out there, but it’s tough when you’re out there every down. But he did a great job, really gave us a couple sparks at some key times. He’s a big-time playmaker for us.”
But Harrisburg had more playmakers Friday night.
The Cougars drove down the field, with the help of a personal foul penalty on State College, and took a 21-16 lead into halftime.
Harrisburg pushed that lead to 34-16 with touchdowns on its first two drives of the second half.
Clark hit Martice Jones for a 16-yard strike for the first score. Little caught the second, pulling in a short pass before juking past a handful of Little Lions defenders en route to a 34-yard touchdown.
“There’s so many kids there that they can just toss it out to and it’s tough when they can just catch a 5-yard pass and just make everybody miss,” Lintal said.
Jones finished with five catches for 58 yards and Little had three receptions for 54 yards. Amechie Walker also grabbed five passes for 61 yards and a score.
State College got back into it with a pair of gambles.
The Little Lions could have gone three-and-out after falling behind by 18. They lined up to punt, but Graham turned and lofted a rainbow down the sideline, drawing a pass interference penalty and giving State College new life on its drive. Valentine caught a 20-yard pass and running back Jordan Misher carried the ball four straight times, finally scoring from three yards out.
State College recovered an onside kick, and Weakland hit Graham for a 42-yard touchdown down the left sideline to pull the Little Lions within 34-29 in the final minute of the third quarter.
It was as close as they would get, as Harrisburg immediately added to its lead in the fourth.
“We took a couple chances there and they panned out for us,” Lintal said. “Our kids did a great job. It’s stuff we worked on. Our coaching staff does an excellent job coming up with some creative things and our kids worked on that day in and day out and it really paid off for us there to get us back in, get that momentum back and unfortunately they got a few too many athletes for us.”