BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – One really couldn’t say that the outcome ruined Jon Hicks’ entire Big 33 experience. Perhaps putting it a better way would be that in defeat, Hicks could take very little consolation from the fact that he played really well.
Hicks, a recently graduated Palmyra senior, more than held his own with the best players from Pennsylvania and Ohio, Saturday night at Hersheypark Stadium. But Hicks’ Pennsylvania team blew a late comfortable lead and fell to Ohio 24-21 in overtime of a 55th annual Big 33 game that was dominated by the home team.
After the Hicks-led Pennsylvania defense held Ohio to a field goal in the opening series of overtime, the University of Connecticut-bound linebacker watched helplessly as the PA offense threw a game-ending interception on its first snap in the extra session. Pennsylvania led 21-7 late in the fourth quarter, before Ohio used an interception and a fumbled kickoff to score two touchdowns in a span of 17 seconds, with less than seven minutes to play.
The loss was the fourth straight in the series for Pennsylvania, which was intercepted a total of five times.
“I thought I did all right,” said Hicks. “I know I had a couple of tackles, but the ultimate stat is winning the game. So it wasn’t that great of a game.”
As Pennsylvania’s primary middle linebacker, Hicks played pretty much the same position he did at Palmyra, and the one he is projected to play at UConn. He was on the field for the majority of Pennsylvania’s defensive snaps and contributed nine total tackles and a quaterback pressure.
“I’m pleased with the way they (the PA coaches) used me,” said Hicks. “I played a lot of ‘Mike’ linebacker. And on third down I dropped and played some defensive end. And I thought I held my own. I got plenty of playing time, so I’m real happy.”
“Last night (Friday) I talked to him and we both realized that this would Jon’s first game that I haven’t been on the sidelines for and involved with,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope at halftime. “It’s always a different system here. I’m happy with the way Jon has played. He even got into a scuffle or two.”
Recognized as a run-stuffing linebacker, Hicks’ role on passing downs was unclear coming in. But Hicks stayed on the field for Ohio passing downs, and looked comfortable rushing the passer from the outside.
The 6-3, 235-pound Hicks, who set a new school record for tackles in a career during his time as a Palmyra Cougar, also competed on the kickoff coverage and punt return teams for Pennsylvania.
“First of all, I wanted to represent my schools, Palmyra and the University of Connecticut,” said Hicks. “I wanted to give it my all and get a victory for Pennsylvania.
“It (the outcome) means a lot,” Hicks continued. “From Day One, we came together as a team. We bonded and we wanted to win the game.”
Pennsylvania opened a 21-7 advantage with 47 seconds of the third quarter remaining when quarterback Blake Rankin hooked up with tight-end J.P. Holtz in the back of the end zone. That score came in response to Ohio’s initial touchdown of the game, an 85-yard pass completion.
That touchdown was the only one the Ohio offense really ‘earned’ against the Pennsylvania defense.
“We’re all competitors out here,” said Hicks. “We all played hard and we wanted to win, despite it being an all-star game.
“We had some crucial turnovers,” Hicks added. “Crucial interceptions in critical areas of the field. I definitely thought we had the game won. They came back and got lucky.”
Rankin, a Rutgers recruit, threw two touchdown passes in the first half, as Pennsylvania took a 14-0 lead to the locker room. The first was a long ball to Kevin Gulyas, while the second was a check-up route to Alonzo Shakim, 2:49 prior to intermission.
“It was a great week,” said Hicks. “We had a great bunch of guys in the locker room. I’ll tell you there were some characters on this team. We really bonded as a team. I made some friends and I’m definitely going to keep in touch with them.”