Saturday, September 30, 2017

Grafton Digs Deep Into its Playbook to Edge Leicester

By Brendan Hall (@BHallESPN)

– Now and then, there come times when you’ve got to take a leap of faith to get to where you want to be.

Exhibit “A” in this theory comes in the form of defending D3 Central Mass champion Grafton. Staring down a possible 1-3 start after spotting SWCL rival Leicester a 14-0 lead just four minutes into its contest Friday night, the Indians opted for the more creative side of offensive coordinator Mike Binkoski’s playbook to get themselves off the canvas.

It paid off, with the Indians rallying all the way back to take the lead for good with nine minutes to go, and hold on for a 26-21 win over the Wolverines.

“Sometimes in games like this, that’s what it takes,” Indians head coach Chris McMahon said of the play calls, which included a double-reverse pass for their first touchdown, and a wildcat play for their final score. “It takes a couple plays like that on both sides of the ball and special teams. We got a spark going and we went from there.”

Trailing 21-20 late in the third quarter with fourth and 6 at their own 38 yard line, the Indians (2-2) called a fake punt that running back Jackson Sonnett (13 carries, 72 yards, 2 TD) ran to perfection. Four minutes later the Indians’ monster 15-play, 85-yard drive that gave them their first lead of the night was complete, with Sonnett faking a jet-sweep handoff and calling his own number as a wildcat quarterback for a five-yard touchdown.

The Indians missed an opportunity to put the nail in the coffin on Leicester (2-2) after falling on the ensuing muffed kickoff, when quarterback Matt Holbrook’s fourth-down pass sailed out of the back of the end zone from the Leicester 8. But the Indians were able to get a huge stop thanks to a run stuff on third down, followed by a Ben Berube tip on an incomplete pass on fourth down to turn the ball back over to Grafton at the Wolverines’ 41.

Leicester had one last chance with 15 seconds to go after taking over at their own 10, but after a 35-yard strike from Dan Mero (8 of 15, 184 yards, TD) to William Roberts (7 catches, 167 yards, TD), the Wolverines’ Hail Mary attempt fell short.

“It’s a huge win,” McMahone said. “We haven’t played each other in five years, but it’s just a great game every time. I’ve been here 10 years, and every time we play each other it comes down to the end. Whenever we play them, we know it’s going to be a tough game.”

The Wolverines couldn’t ask for a better start in this one, storming out of the gates to take a 14-0 lead just four minutes into the contest. Grafton deferred to the second half after winning the coin toss, and Kyle Padeni made them pay for their decision immediately. Gathering the kickoff at the right hash, the senior speedster burst up the seam and cut across midfield near the 50-yard line, leaving the Indians’ kicker in the dust as he scampered up the sideline for an 85-yard touchdown just 15 seconds in.

After the ensuing Grafton three-and-out, the Wolverines needed just three plays to make it 14-0. Facing second and 14 at his own 40, Mero found Roberts deep down the right sideline and launched a throw with plenty of sail under it, but plenty enough for the senior receiver to out-muscle a defender for the jump ball and coast the last 30 yards alone for a 60-yard score.

In need of some spark, the Indians dialed up some trickeration. Junior receiver Ryan Jack completed a five-play, 63-yard drive late in the first quarter with a 43-yard touchdown strike to Matt Deely, cutting the Wolverines’ lead to 14-6.

“Every so often [Binkoski] breaks that out in practice,” McMahon said of the play call. “He does a great job, he really does. We have a lot of versatile kids we want to get the ball in certain situations, and he puts them in the best position to succeed. That was a great call.”

Leicester responded with some trickeration of its own, only for it to backfire. First, an offensive pass interference call on a reverse pass attempt gave the Wolverines third and 34 from the Indians’ 36. That mistake turned into a 75-fumble return for a touchdown the other way on the very next play, with Matt Holbrook scooping and sprinting up the left sideline to cut Leicester’s lead to 14-12.

The Wolverines caught a break late in the first half to take a 21-12 lead after recovering a Grafton fumble at the Indians’ 22. Bryce Gosselin capped a seven-play scoring drive with a three-yard off-tackle on fourth down to take the eight-point lead into the break.

Grafton opened the second half with an eight-play, 71-yard scoring drive that started with a long run by Ethan Farrah (27 carries, 123 yards) and ended with a five-yard Sonnett plunge, followed by a two-point run by Sonnett, to cut Leicester’s lead to 21-20.


The Indians’ most crucial defensive stand came following Holbrook’s incompletion that gave Leicester the ball back at its own 8 with 6:24 to go. On the first play off the turnover on downs, Mero found Roberts (who else) for another big gain down the sideline, this one 31 yards to give the Wolverines first and 10 at their own 39 with plenty of time to re-take the lead.

On third and 6, however, McMahon dialed up a defensive call you might see on NFL Sundays run by coaches like Rex Ryan or Dom Capers. Sometimes called a “psycho” package – or more colorfully, a “Times Square” defense – all four of Grafton’s defensive linemen stood up in a two-point stance, with the linebackers creeping up into the gaps at four to five yards’ depth.

The play resulted in a gang-tackle in the backfield, stuffing Leicester’s running back for a two-yard loss to set up fourth and 8. That allowed the Indians to drop seven on an obvious passing down, where Berube sat in the flat in got enough fingertips on Mero’s pass to create an incompletion, turnover on downs, and a grind-it-out Grafton drive that left the Wolverines with under a minute to go when they got the ball back at their own 10.

“We call that ‘Up’,” McMahon said of the third-down call. “The defensive line plays up and they just go. You play the tendencies, you play what you’ve seen on film and what you think they’re gonna do. We figured they would pass [on third and 6], so we had the D-line up to get the quarterback."


One of the Indians’ biggest in-game adjustments wasn’t a schematic one as much as it was a fundamental one.

Like many a Wing-T team, Leicester seeks to stretch the field vertically when it takes to the air -- more of a change-of-pace strategy, as opposed to a rhythmic one like with traditional spread offenses. Mero averaged 19 air yards per attempt on his 13 passes that went beyond the line of scrimmage, including eight that went over 20. That put a strain on the Grafton secondary early.

On Roberts’ 60-yard score, for instance, he was met with no safety help after he won the 50/50 ball deep down the right sideline. McMahon instructed his players to be more physical against the receivers, instead of looking to make a play on the ball.

“We talked to the kids about playing the guy, not the ball,” McMahon said. “It goes back to the kids – they made the plays. We made a little bit of an adjustment, we went a little bit more 4-3 in the third and fourth quarter, and even in the second quarter, to give those guys more help.

“Look, Leicester’s good. They’ve got two excellent receivers, a quarterback who throws the ball wall. Their running back is tremendous. They’re a tough, physical, bruising team. They’re the total package. It’s a lot to prepare for. We talked to the kids about some tendencies they had throwing the deep ball, and we told them to play the guy, not the ball, and we’ll be alright.”

That strategy came into effect on the final play of the game, when Mero was looking to fire one last deep one down the right sideline. Linebacker Brady Fontana had flat responsibilities on the pass attempt, but initially chipped Roberts coming off the line of scrimmage, throwing Leicester’s timing off and allowing the Indians to get a good angle to bat down the pass.

As for that call? That actually came at the suggestion of Farrah.

“We worked it a couple weeks ago for [the Indians’ loss to] Shrewsbury, and we just put it in there tonight, nice call by the kid [Farrah] actually,” McMahon said. “I can’t take the credit. That’s on Ethan.”

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