HERSHEY — When the Ohio Big 33 team was first chosen, Tyler O’Connor wasn’t even sure if he was going to be chosen. But on Friday night at the pregame banquet, O’Connor took notice of the two MVP statues sitting up on stage and knew right then that he wanted one.
Twenty-four hours later, he was presented with that same trophy on a different stage – one on the 50-yard line at Hersheypark Stadium after Ohio took down Pennsylvania, 24-21, in overtime.
“I saw these trophies on the stage at the banquet, not even really knowing what they were,” O’Connor said. “Then tonight after the game I saw one of the guys in the orange shirts and he grabbed me and told me I was the MVP. It’s such an honor.”
From the start of the game, it looked like O’Connor’s team wouldn’t be very award worthy at the end. Pennsylvania, who had lost the previous three contests against Ohio, came out firing on all cylinders.
Skyler Mornhinweg found Kevin Gulyas wide open downfield for the games first score on a 61-yard fly route along the sideline just five minutes into the contest. After getting blown out last year by 36 points, Pennsylvania looked to be back on track early this year.
“In that first half, we felt good about everything that was happening,” Pennsylvania head coach Mike Brennan said. “We had a great week of practice and the kids were playing hard..”
Throughout the week, Brennan had been preaching to his team the importance of getting that loss last year back. With the way things were playing out early, it looked like that might be the case when Blake Rankin hit Shakim Alonzo to put Pa. up 14-0 going into the half.
“All week the coach has been preaching about adversity,” Ohio running back Warren Ball said. “He told us we would experience it and to win, it would be all about overcoming it. This team took that to heart and we were able to do that tonight.”
Ohio did threaten right away, when on their first drive they took it all the way down to the Pa. 25, but turned it over on downs.
On the next drive they wouldn’t miss. O’Connor connected for his touchdown pass of the night on an 85-yard pass to Najee Murray with 4:35 left in the third quarter. Murray made a leaping catch and pulled the ball over a Pa. defender, then took it the rest of the way, cutting the deficit to 14-7.
“Not much changed to be honest,” O’Connor said of Ohio’s play in the second half. “I think the only thing is we took some more chances. We took a chance deep with Murray, he made a great move and got the score.”
Right before the third quarter ended, Rankin found J.P. Holtz in the end zone for his second touchdown pass of the night, putting Pa. up 21-7. Rankin finished 9-14 for 134 yards – enough to earn him the Pa. MVP.
“It’s a huge honor,” Rankin said of earning the MVP award. “I would have really wanted to have had the win though, too.”
From that point on, it would be all Ohio, as the Pa. team seemed to lose sight of the game. With 9:06 left to play, O’Connor picked up the first down on a fourth and five rush to the right side. The next play, he kept it again for one-yard touchdown keeper, making the score 21-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Ohio forced a fumble in the end zone and recovered, knotting the game at 21.
In overtime, Ohio took the ball first and was forced to settle for a 39-yard field goal, giving Pa. a chance to score a touchdown for the win. But on the first play, Mornhinweg threw a pick to Ohio’s Nana Kyeremeh, sealing the Ohio win for the fourth straight year.
“I saw the ball get tipped and saw it was close,” Kyeremeh said of the last play. “We came back from 14 and never quit. It was fun having all that hard work pay off.”
After the game, O’Connor stood in the center of his teammates and honorary chairman Ben Roethlisberger at midfield celebrating the win when he first got to see what those trophies on the stage were meant for. To go along with the Big 33 championship trophy for his state, O’Connor was getting one for himself – an honor he said he would never forget.
Notes: Mechanicsburg linebacker Bryton Barr had six tackles and broke up two passes … Cumberland Valley’s offensive lineman Kyle Friend played from the first series with the Pa. offense.