Second-Half Surge By Milton Ends Magicians’ Playoff Run
By Dwight Robson, Marblehead Beacon Contributor
The Marblehead Football Magicians traveled to Milton on Friday night with aspirations of knocking off the top-ranked Wildcats and maintaining their dream of back-to-back Division-Three Super Bowl Championships. Marblehead stunned the home crowd by jumping out to a 20-10 halftime lead, but a second-half surge by Milton gave the Wildcats enough to escape with a narrow 24-20 victory and end the Magicians’ playoff run.
Despite Marblehead’s status as defending champions, Milton—which now sports a perfect 9-0 record — came into the game the clear favorite after dominating its opponents on each side of the ball throughout the season and outscoring their opposition by a cumulative score of 294-94. The explosive Wildcat offense averaged nearly 37 points a game, while its defense surrendered seven or fewer points in five of the team’s previous eight games.
Marblehead got the first crack on offense and started strong, picking up two quick first downs on a 10-yard completion to Zander Danforth and a run by Eddie Johns that advanced the ball past midfield to the Milton 48-yard line. However, the Magicians’ drive stalled after an illegal procedure penalty on 3rd down and three pushed Marblehead back five yards. After quarterback Miles Oneill threw an incomplete pass to Shane Keough, Marblehead elected to punt.
Following last week’s playoff win over Whitman-Hanson, Marblehead head coach Jim Rudloff emphasized that his squad needed to “clean up” their execution and avoid penalty flags if they expected to advance past Milton. Unfortunately for Marblehead, the penalty that halted their promising first drive was only the first of six flags thrown against the Magicians on the night, with each one seemingly coming at a critical juncture in the game. Milton, on the other hand, and much to the chagrin of Marblehead’s coaching staff, didn’t draw a single penalty flag.
After a quick three-and-out for the Milton offense, Marblehead got the ball back at their own 38-yard line. On the Magicians’ first play of the series, senior standout Connor Cronin received a screen pass from Oneill and advanced the ball 34 yards to the Milton 28. Marblehead would need only five more plays to take an early lead after running back Johns scored from eight yards out. Greg Motorny’s extra point gave the visitors a 7-0 lead with four and a half minutes to play in the opening quarter.
On the kickoff, Marblehead got a tough break when Motorny’s kick hit at the Milton one-yard line and rolled out of bounds, resulting in a penalty flag that moved the ball out to the Wildcats’ 30-yard line. Milton would hold the ball for more than six minutes, running 13 plays that covered 70 yards and tied the score 7-7 after Wildcat senior running back Jack Finnegan scored a six-yard touchdown. But for two plays, the drive might have ended very differently. The first came on 4th down and six at the Milton 46-yard line when Finnegan took a handoff and just barely made the line to gain. The second was the result of another mental mistake by the Magicians as they jumped offside with Milton facing a 3rd down and six deep in the red zone. Particularly in that part of the field, Marblehead’s gift of a free five yards made a tremendous difference and they paid the price on the next play when Finnegan’s tough run evened the score.
A big special teams play helped Marblehead recapture the lead. After the Milton defense sacked Oneill to begin Marblehead’s third series on offense, the Magicians quickly found themselves in punt formation on 4th down and 12 from their own 18-yard line. Punter Motorny displayed his strong leg, booting the ball over the head of Milton’s punt returner and all the way to Milton’s 20-yard line. On Milton’s second play of the series on 2nd down and six, Cronin’s quick reaction on a tipped pass resulted in an interception and set the Marblehead offense up at the Milton 31-yards line. The Magicians advanced the ball nearly 30 yards on successive runs by Oneill and Cronin, giving them a first and goal at the two-yard line. Eddie Johns capped the three-play drive with his second touchdown run of the half. After Motorny’s successful kick, Marblehead led 14-7 with 6:26 remaining until halftime.
It didn’t take very long for Marblehead to expand its lead. After a great tackle by Baxter Jennings on Milton’s first play of its next series and an incomplete pass on second down, Milton quarterback Owen McHugh was sacked by Marblehead’s Aidan Tardie—forcing a Wildcat punt. Marblehead took possession at their own 42-yard line and needed only two plays to hit paydirt, with Oneill finding a streaking Danforth for a 52-yard touchdown pass. In what would prove to be a big play, Milton’s Luke Haley blocked Motorny’s extra-point attempt, resulting in a 20-7 lead for Marblehead at the 4:16 mark of the second quarter.
On their final drive of the half, the home team regained some momentum before the break on another drive aided by a Marblehead penalty. Playing a “bend but don’t break” defense designed to prevent an explosive play, the Magicians forced another long drive that consumed nearly all the time remaining in the half and resulted in a Milton field goal. After a major penalty moved the ball inside the red zone to Marblehead’s 12-yard line, the Magicians stiffened. Under heavy pressure, Milton quarterback McHugh threw incomplete on 3rd down and four. After a short field goal, the visitors from the North Shore led at the break by a 20-10 score.
Milton received the kickoff to open the second half and methodically moved the ball in a 10-plus play drive all the way to the Marblehead 11-yard line, but again the Magicians’ defense rose to the occasion. On 3rd and three, Marblehead’s Chris DeWitt made a terrific play to bat down a McHugh pass. On 4th down, McHugh was pressured again and threw incomplete.
On its ensuing drive, Marblehead looked poised to expand its lead when Cronin made another great play by catching a pass while surrounded by Milton defenders and advancing the ball to the Milton side of the field at the 46-yard line. However, a holding call on Marblehead sent the Magicians in reverse. After an incomplete screen pass to Danforth on 4th down, Milton had the ball back in its possession at its own 37-yard line and four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Unfortunately for Marblehead, its defense finally broke on Milton’s third play of the drive. On 2nd down from the Marblehead 45-yard line, Wildcat senior wide receiver Michael Fulton streaked up the right sideline, hauling in a long pass from McHugh and outrunning the opposition to the goal line. Suddenly, Marblehead’s lead had shrunk to three points (20-17) and the home team clearly had the momentum.
After Marblehead picked up a first down at their own 37-yard line on a completed pass to DeWitt, the Magicians stalled and were forced to bring Motorny out onto the field to punt the ball back to Milton. This time it was the Wildcats that made an impactful special teams play as they were able to return the ball to mid-field with half a minute remaining in the third quarter. Milton quickly moved the ball into the red zone, but again the Magicians defense stiffened—forcing Milton coach Steve Dembrowski to decide between trying a game-tying field goal or going for it on 4th and three at the 14-yard line.
Dembrowski, who had starred as a player at Marblehead rival Swampscott High and later coached the Big Blue to three Super Bowl appearances, including a championship in 2007, kept the Milton offense on the field. McHugh rewarded his coach’s faith with a completion to Fulton that was good for seven yards. The Wildcats then handed the ball to Finnegan on three successive plays, the final being a one-yard touchdown that gave Milton its first lead. A successful kick made the score 24-20 with 8:23 left in the contest.
With their season on the line—and needing a touchdown rather than what could have been a game-tying field goal if they hadn’t had an extra point attempt blocked earlier in the game—the Magicians offense took the field facing the prospect of having to move the ball 80 yards to retake the lead. Marblehead picked up three first downs and advanced the ball to the Milton 42-yard line. On 2nd and 10, Marblehead was called for a hold on a Johns run—pushing the ball back 10 yards. After Marblehead was stopped for no gain on their 2nd and 3rd downs with 20 yards to go, Coach Rudloff elected to put the game in the hands of his defense by punting the ball to Milton.
Needing a couple of first downs to force Marblehead to exhaust its timeouts and run the clock out, Milton wisely kept the call on the ground. After holding Finnegan to a two-yard gain on 2nd down, Marblehead called its first timeout with just north of two minutes remaining. With the Wildcats facing a 3rd and four at their own 21-yard line, the Magicians desperately needed a stop to get the ball back and have a chance at a last-minute score. McHugh broke the visitors’ back, however, keeping the ball for a seven-yard gain. After Finnegan picked up another first down, all hope was lost for the Magicians as the Wildcats QB took a knee on successive plays to end the game.
As Coach Rudloff reminded his players in an animated address after the game, while Marblehead’s dream of back-to-back championships was dashed by the Wildcats their season isn’t over. Later this month, the Magicians will host Swampscott when the two teams compete for the 112th time on Thanksgiving Day. Fans of both teams can only hope that the game contains nearly as much drama as last year’s contest when Marblehead’s Eli Feingold kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Magicians to a 31-28 victory and keep their perfect season alive. Marblehead leads the all-time series 56-49-6.