If Jesse Manuel wasn’t rushing for touchdowns, Tioga was recovering fumbles.
Those marked the major themes of a first half dominated by the Tigers, who advanced to the Class D state football semifinals for the fifth straight season with a 50-14 cruise past Section 3’s Sandy Creek on Friday night at Binghamton Alumni Stadium.
Tioga (10-1) will play in a state semifinal this coming Friday at Cicero North Syracuse. Section 5’s Bishop Kearney or Section 6’s Franklinville/Ellicottville/West Valley will await. Those teams will play their quarterfinal Saturday.
On a windy and brisk night, the artificial surface belonged to those wearing blue jerseys and it started from the outset. Tioga’s hard-hitting defense forced a three-and-out on the opening series. Following a 12-yard punt, Manuel took a handoff off the right side and made a sharp cut to the near sideline en route to a 46-yard scoring run. Tanner Folk’s extra point made it 7-0 with 9 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first quarter.
“He was able to find a seam,” Tioga coach Nick Aiello said of Manuel’s scamper. “When they don’t play it with a safety like that, if we can get through the second level then he’s gone and that’s exactly what happened.”
By half’s end, Manuel had 238 yards on the ground and five touchdowns — an effort that led the Tigers to a 43-6 cushion.
Later in the first quarter and one play after the first of four lost Comets fumbles in the first half, Tioga quarterback Connor Hutchinson hit a wide-open Nick Klossner about 30 yards down field. Klossner eased into the end zone on a 45-yard play and Tioga’s lead grew to 14-0.
Once again, Tioga forced a fumble by Joe Benedict and Manuel recovered at Tioga’s 37. Two plays later, Manuel burst through a gaping hole on the left side and sprinted 51 yards for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 21-0 advantage 10:49 before halftime.
Two plays into Sandy Creek’s next possession came another lost fumble, this one recovered by Scott Siberski at the Comets’ 19. One play later and aided by a huge block from Zach Hutchinson, Manuel scored from 12 yards off the left side. It made for a 28-0 lead.
“The line definitely did a great job in execution and creating me big holes and letting me get to the second level, letting me do what I do best,” said Manuel, who exceeded the 8,000-yard plateau for all-time rushing yards on this night, second in state history behind former Onondaga star Mike Hart, who went to play for Indianapolis Colts.
Benedict, who rushed for a team-high 120 yards and scored two touchdowns, broke loose for a 72-yard scoring run on Sandy Creek’s next possession.
The Comets (8-3) then recovered an onside kick, but three plays later, Klossner intercepted a deep pass thrown by Benedict. That jump-started an eight-play, 90-yard drive that featured a 43-yarder on a toss right by Manuel and ended with a 17-yard touchdown by Manuel, who stiff-armed a pair of defenders on the way to the end zone.
“I say it about him all the time, but he more than deserves all the accolades that he gets,” Aiello said his star back, who tacked on a 22-yard scoring run before halftime.
In all, Tioga’s defense forced five turnovers in the opening half.
“Just creating turnovers is a huge momentum swing and that really opened up the game there early in the game and definitely changed the mentality of the game,” said Manuel, who finished with 243 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
Adam Zwierlein contributed 77 rushing yards for Tioga, which has won seven straight since a 35-32 loss to Newark Valley in Week 4.
Klossner and Connor Hutchinson collaborated on their second 45-yard scoring play early in the second half and Benedict’s 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter capped the scoring.