NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH, Mass. – Bewitched, bemused, bewildered, be- anything about the way the season’s gone so far in the Hockomock League. Trying to predict which teams will claim the respective division titles this year is a bit like tossing pebbles into the Manchester Pond Resevoir.
And so Friday night’s battle between No. 19 Mansfield and North Attleborough did not disappoint, with the Red Rocketeers separating themselves in the fourth quarter in a 36-21 win. It only further obfuscated the playoff picture in the Kelley-Rex division, paired with a Franklin loss to Taunton.
“Welcome to the Hockomock League,” North head coach Don Johnson quipped postgame.
The Red Rocketeers (5-3, 2-1 Kelley-Rex) have endured a seemingly never-ending tide of injuries throughout the season, but saw multi-threat running back and defensive back Alex Jette return for their showdown with the Hornets (5-3, 2-1).
North’s early offensive play calls massaged Jette into the flow, running him across the field on passing plays as a decoy in the backfield, faking toss sweeps. They also put the ball in the hands of senior quarterback Ryan Perron (7 of 14, 162 yards, 2 TDs) who effectively piloted the Red Rocketeers’ passing attack with a steady stream of screens and intermediate routes in three- and four-receiver sets.
Lately, Perron’s also shown off a big-play capacity, however, and it showed Friday night with two touchdown passes. On the game’s second play from scrimmage, Perron hit Jake Dellaire on a seam route for a 62-yard touchdown and an instant 7-0 lead. Just before the half, Perron connected with Jette on a shallow fade for a 40-yard touchdown pass which provided North with a 20-7 halftime lead.
“That was probably the biggest difference tonight, he made good decisions,” Johnson said of his quarterback. “He was just playing with so much confidence tonight, running and throwing the ball.”
Mansfield worked its way back in the second half behind a thumping run game. The Hornets bruised their way downfield on a 9-play, 64-yard drive to open the third, capped by Kevin Makie’s 6-yard touchdown run to make it a one-score game.
The Hornets claimed their first and last lead of the game on the final play of the third quarter as quarterback Kyle Wisnieski hit Mike Hershman for a 35-yard touchdown. With a successful point-after try, Mansfield took a 21-20 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Perron again piloted the Red Rocketeers’ offense, embarking a four-plus minute, 67-yard drive. Perron called his own number for his second rushing touchdown of the game, breaking a tackle in the open field to run 10 yards for a score. He then hit a wide-open Mike Lambert (INT, 2 PD) on a two-point conversion for a 28-21 lead with 6:32 to play.
Looking to even the score, Mansfield was hampered by a couple key penalty calls on its ensuing drive. The Hornets were stung by an illegal forward pass call on what would have been a huge third-down conversion pass to Brendan Hill on third and 14. The call resulted in a loss of downs and forced a Mansfield punt.
With the ball back in their hands and looking to soak the clock, North running back Dwayne Hunter broke the game open two plays later with a 75-yard touchdown run to ice it.
BIG IN STATURE
Listed at 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, Hunter makes up in punch for what he lacks in stature. His running style belies his stature. He’s willing to initiate contact, but also hard to bring down with his low center of gravity.
Hunter (8 carries, 127 yards, TD) came up huge for the Red Racketeers however in the fourth quarter. His 25-yard gain on an outside pitch to the left side on fourth and 2 set up North first and goal from the 10-yard line with under seven minutes to play in the fourth. The next play saw Perron run for the game-winning touchdown. The senior running back then placed an exclamation point on the evening with his 75-yard touchdown, made on his adept cutback across the teeth of a Mansfield all-out blitz.
“The linebackers were blitzing, so I had to cut it up quick,” Hunter said of his run. They were overloading on one side, so I had to make a quick decision.”
Johnson heaped praise on his back, calling Hunter a “tough nut.”
Like the rest of this Red Rocketeers team, he just doesn’t crack.
… BUT THEY BEND
North’s defensive front seven looked strong throughout, but saw Robbie Rapoza (14 carries, 135 yards, TD) and Co. find success against them in the second half. Yet, the Red Rocketeers turned Mansfield’s high-flying aerial attack, which scorched a good King Philip unit a week ago, into a relative non-factor.
Wisnieski was dealt with a steady stream of pressure, applied by rangy defensive end Tadkudzwa Chikomba (3 QB pressures) and linebacker Ben Jette.
Ben Jette, the fraternal twin of Alex, sealed a strong performance and the win for North with a strip-sack of Wisnieski on Mansfield’s final offensive drive. Ben Jette finished with three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
“That’s why I’m so proud of these guys because we’ve been going through that now for about six weeks, asking guys to play different positions every week,” Johnson said. “Losing Harry [offensive/defensive lineman Harrison Carmichael] tonight, he’s one of our dominant players on both sides of the ball. We had to use [Sean] Peters at defensive end, he hasn’t gotten many reps out there and he’s banged up with his shoulder. We had to use [Eric] Beckwith as a guard … We’ve asked a lot of players to step up and they’ve done that.”
The pressure applied by the Red Rocketeers up front came in concert with strong efforts from Alex Jette and Jack Blasé at the cornerback positions. Jette tallied three passes defended, two of which came on a promising Mansfield drive late in the second quarter that ended in a turnover on downs and set up Jette’s touchdown reception.
“We didn’t blitz as much as we normally do, we felt that we just couldn’t give up the big play against them, so we played a lot more zone,” Johnson said. “We’d bring one of two guys here and there, but I think we did enough to keep them off-balance.”