IRWIN - It wasn't exactly the picture perfect opening game for the Altoona Area High School football team.
No offense. Or, not much offense, anyway.
With 11 new starters on that side of the football, John Franco wasn't asking for miracles. What he received though, was a terrific effort by his defense that was more than enough for the Mountain Lions to post their first shutout since he returned to coach Altoona, 21-0, at Norwin High School in a Foothills Conference game on a humid Friday night.
"Defense wins championships. We smacked them in the mouth," junior linebacker Kevin Givens said. "Our defense is solid this year. I think we're better than last year. We don't make a lot of mistakes. We worked."
Givens scored on two 1-yard touchdown plunges, and junior Eli Mencer rushed for 115 yards in his first start at quarterback. All three Lion touchdowns, though, came after turnovers - Altoona's scoring drives were 23, 12 and 7 yards.
Altoona forced four turnovers altogether. Nick Lytle, another junior, picked off a pair of passes.
"These were miserable conditions tonight, and I loved our conditioning. We kept getting stronger as the game went on," Franco said. "We've got 11 new starters on offense, and we had our growing pains. But I think our defense really held us in there. Our defense did a tremendous job."
The Lion defenders faced a gut-check early on when Norwin drove into Altoona territory on its first possession and took over only 48 yards from paydirt on its second possession. Altoona, though, rose to the occasion both times, and the Knights really didn't muster many threats after that.
It was Altoona's first shutout since blanking Plum 23-0 on Oct. 14, 2011.
"We're feeling good right now. It was really important to us [to stop them early]. When our offense scored, it got the fire pumping," said senior defensive back Tyler Wray, who intercepted a pass and is one of three Lions who had some significant starting experience on defense last year. "We had to shut down their quarterback [Nick Amendola] mainly, his running. We wanted to contain him inside the pocket, and we didn't want him passing deep."
Although it managed just 211 yards, Altoona only gave up 205. Amendola was held to minus-5 yards rushing and 67 yards total before Norwin coach Art Tragesser switched to Sean Bowen in the second half.
"We had them backed up [early]. I thought that might give us a spark. It just seems like we've got that cloud over our head. We can't get that big play when we need it," Tragesser said.
Altoona had plenty of little plays, too. The kicking game loomed large. Kickoff man Joel Reighard booted four touchbacks, and punter James Metzgar had 39 and 44 yards punts early to turn the field position around before pinning the Knights on their own 16 with his third kick.
"Special teams and defense, what a great formula," Franco said. "Wait until the offense picks up."
Mencer was just 4-for-15 throwing the ball, but he only was picked off once, and that was a deep pass. His running, though, was just fine: Runs of 22 yards and 9 yards set up both of Givens' touchdowns.
Mencer also hit Josh DeGol with a 7-yard touchdown pass with 5:07 left to ice the game. It wasn't pretty - he collided with his running back before composing himself and finding the senior tight end all alone in the end zone.
"It was very exciting. I was so nervous," Mencer said. "I knew I could run. These lineman helped me so much. They opened up so many holes for me. It feels good [to win].
"A good first step," Franco said. "We'll get better, keep working and see what we do."
Game notes: Altoona's biggest lineman, Nate Farlow, left the game and didn't return. Franco was unsure of his condition immediately after the game. ... Altoona is back on the road next week at Kiski Area in another Foothills game on Friday. Norwin's at Penn-Trafford the same night.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Norwin0 0 0 0 - 0
Altoona0 7 7 7 - 21
A-Givens 1 run (Metzgar kick), 5:46.
A-Givens 1 run (Metzgar kick), 1:11.
A-DeGol 7 pass from Mencer (Metzgar kick), 5:07.
RUSHING: Altoona-Givens 17-52, Mencer 15-115, McConnell 6-6, N. Scheinberg 1-4, TEAM 2-(-2). Norwin-Baum 2-40, Tinsley 6-24, Goins 3-6, LoChiatto 2-(-3), Bowen 1-(-3), Amendola 8-(-5).
PASSING: Altoona-Mencer 4-15-1-36. Norwin-Amendola 11-19-1-72, Bowen 8-19-2-74, TEAM 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: Altoona- DeGol 2-39, Givens 1-1, Fink 1-(-4). Norwin-L. Deri 8-61, Perz 3-27, Baum 5-40, LoChiatto 1-3, Hall 1-15.
INTERCEPTIONS: Altoona-Lytle 2, Wray. Norwin-Hall.