A number of league championships will be decided this weekend, and with that, we're discussing "X-factors" for each of the most crucial matchups.
NO. 5 WALPOLE (9-0) AT NO. 21 NATICK (8-1)
Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: You can pick just about anyone off this elite Rebels’ defense, but let’s go with senior captain and inside linebacker Cam Hanley. He’s been the quarterback to this Walpole defense for a few years now and will be a vital cog plugging the running lanes when Natick quarterback Troy Flutie takes off on the run.
Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: When these two teams squared off last season, Walpole went almost exclusively with a three-man front and five in the box. They did just fine, holding the Red Hawks to just 17 yards of offense in the first half, and eked out a 16-13 win on a last-second field goal. I don’t expect much to change this year. Walpole has one of the state’s most aggressive pass rushes, with 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end Chris Collins leading the way, and is a big reason why the Rebels haven’t allowed a point since Sept. 28.
This Natick line has improved since the beginning of the season, but expect their hands to be full. Natick plays an uptempo, hurry-up style aimed at making the defense think fast, but quarterback Troy Flutie is going to have to make quick decisions –- chuck it or tuck it. And with receiver Brian Dunlap expected to draw extra attention, supporting receivers Justin Robinson and Andrew Boynton are going to be crucial.
Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent: This game will come down to whether or not Natick can make enough stops to give its explosive offense a chance in the end. Both of these teams can put up big numbers on the scoreboard, but while Walpole's defense has been equally effective, Natick's was lit up last week against Wellesley and lacks the same amount of playmakers the Rebels have on that side of the ball. The Red Hawks need to make stops early and often or else they can kiss their hopes of a Bay State Herget Division title goodbye.
BISHOP FEEHAN (6-2) AT NO. 16 SOMERSET-BERKLEY (9-0)
Barboza: Sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer. I might be going super-safe here, but Garrett Carlos and Mike Garrant have been the key to Somerset-Berkley’s success all season long. If the two-headed backfield is on point on Saturday, the Blue Raiders will be tough to beat.
Hall: There’s nothing fancy about Somerset’s offense -– Garrett Carlos left, Mike Garrant right, vice-versa, fullback dive –- and there are no tricks. With its one-inch splits, the double wing eliminates blitz packages. Stopping the attack requires discipline not to over-pursue, and generally the play is read by following the pulling guards or watching where the quarterback opens his hips, then crashing the other way.
Of course, Feehan knows all this. This is nothing new to the Shamrocks, who sees this attack year in year out, and solved it last season for a 41-7 romp of the Blue Raiders. Somerset is looking like its 2010 dominance, but it is a smaller yet faster unit than that Super Bowl finalist squad which ran behind 320-pound road grader Ian Levesque. Plain and simple, the Feehan defensive line is going to have to get off its blocks -– and do it quickly.
Kurkjian: Bishop Feehan has to force negative plays on early downs and get Somerset's offense off the field. The way Somerset pounds teams on the ground, your defense can be worn out by the time the fourth quarter comes around. The Shamrocks would love to take an early lead and force Somerset out of its comfort zone by going to the air, although it's unlikely to happen unless Somerset is behind my multiple scores in the latter stages of the game.
Josh Perry, Managing Editor, HockomockSports.com: The X-factor between the top two teams in the EAC will be Shamrocks senior quarterback Nick Romero. Both teams are heavily focused on the ground game, but if Feehan can get something going in the passing attack and balance its offense it should provide the edge. Both teams will be crowding the line of scrimmage and bringing numbers up into the box. If Romero can connect with his receivers, even simple screens to Matt Allen and Isiah Douglas, it will give Feehan an edge.
NO. 18 KING PHILIP (8-1) AT NO. 24 NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH (6-3)
Barboza: I’m going with go with Sam McDonald, who’s made King Philip’s offense more dynamic in recent weeks. McDonald’s had two-touchdown games in two of the last three weeks, including last week’s win over Oliver Ames, when he hauled in a 22-yard touchdown pass from John Dillon and added a spark to the Warriors’ special teams with a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Hall: Joe Johnston gives this King Philip rushing attack its spunk, but it’s going to be his play on defense that is the difference in this one. The Warriors are noted for devising great defensive gameplans, but that was delivered a swift wakeup call in the 46-33 loss to Mansfield. North has some big-play threats, and if KP wants to keep them in check they will have to dictate the pace of this game early.
Kurkjian: A year ago, King Philip held North Attleborough to just seven points. This year, it's the North defense that will need to be up to the task if it wants to take this showdown in the Hock. North can't count on its offense to just outscore King Philip because outside of an uncharacteristic breakdown against Mansfield, the Warriors have been strong on that side of the ball. Lately, North's defense has shown some weakness and it cannot allow more of that because KP is not the type of team that is going to allow the type of Arena League scores that the Red Rocketeers have hund up on teams this year.
Perry: The biggest X-factor in this game will be health. Sean Peters and Alex Jette are back for the Rocketeers, but neither is 100 percent. Jette's hair-line fracture is not fully healed yet and Peters will probably need surgery on his shoulder after the season. Even at only 75 percent, both players have made a significant contribution to the team on the field as well as positively impacting the team's attitude and confidence. Meanwhile, KP are a little banged up after fullback/linebacker Ryan Dunn went down with an arm injury in last week's rout of Oliver Ames. Dunn left the field with his arm in a sling and he would be a huge loss for the Warriors if he can't play. He is the lead blocker for Joe Johnston, a good inside option in the power running game, and is one of KP's best defensive players against the run.
NO. 17 NAUSET (9-0) AT PLYMOUTH SOUTH (6-3)
Barboza: Dylan Oxsen obviously is having a historic season for the Panthers with 28 touchdowns to date, but Harrison Holbrook and Devin Guadagno have also been intergral to Plymouth South’s success. Now, we’ll see if they can run together to a Atlantic Coast League title.
Hall: South’s Dylan Oxsen is as hard-charging as they come -– you don’t tip-toe your way to 28 touchdowns -– running behind some quick pulling linemen. For that, I think the key to this game will if Nauset’s two-way lineman Dakota Girard can get off his blocks and create some havoc at the point of attack. The Brown University-bound senior is one of the biggest reasons the Warriors are having their best season in school history.
Kurkjian: Nauset needs to be able to slow down Dylan Oxsen enough to force Plymouth South to beat it in other ways. Oxsen has put up monster numbers this season and his team is on a major roll right now. If Nauset is somehow able to limit his yards and force the Plymouth South offense to go elsewhere, it could be the key in this pivotal Atlantic Coast League game.
NO. 11 BEVERLY (9-0) AT MARBLEHEAD (8-1)
Barboza: Pick your poison with the Panthers’ backfield, right? So I’m going to go with the Magicians’ defense, in particular their defensive line of Rajive Alcindor, Trever Gelineau and Kyle McCormack. They’ll have their hands full with the Panthers’ athletic offensive line and will have to play their responsibilities if Marblehead is to have any hope of slowing Beverly’s stable of backs and a chance at victory.
Hall: Fitting that Marblehead goes by the Magicians, because their front seven is going to have to turn in some majestic play to keep this one close. The evolution of the spread has yielded video game-like stats for high school teams across Massachusetts, but what should scare you about the Panthers’ average of 38 points per game is that they’re doing it heavy on the run with a Wing-T offense. My advice: shoot the guards up the A-gaps, get upfield and hope for the best.
Kurkjian: The Magicians will be heavy underdogs in this game and the key for them to pull the upset is to make Beverly play a four-quarter game. Most of the opponents on the Panthers' schedule have fallen behind by so much that the fourth quarter is usually a JV contest. The Panthers have not trailed much at all this season and a second-half lead or a one-score game in the fourth quarter would give Marblehead a major advantage because they've been in more close games this season.
NO. 23 ABINGTON (9-0) AT EAST BRIDGEWATER (6-3)
Barboza: We all know the big-play ability Babila Fonkem brings for Abington, but the Green Wave is very much a three-headed monster. And the straws that stir the Green Wave’s drink are a dangerous duo in Brian Kilmain and Jack Malafronte.
Hall: Abington goes in as the favorites, but they’re going to have to stop East Bridgewater’s option game. Andrew Benson is a run-first quarterback who can keep the sticks moving if you give him the edge. The Green Wave are going to have to contain the outside gaps and funnel things through the middle of the field.
Kurkjian: The Vikings will come into this one as underdogs and deservedly so because Abington has been so solid all season. However, an upset is not out of the question and the way that East Bridgewater can do it is by jumping out to an early lead and keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter. Abington has not played a close game since September and since so much is expected of this team, all the pressure will be on the Green Wave in a hostile environment. The Vikings need to maintain that pressure and see if it can have a negative impact on the visitors.
FRANKLIN (7-2) AT MANSFIELD (6-3)
Barboza: Junior linebacker Alex Ruddy has taken a big step forward for the Hornets this season and leads the team in tackles with 62 (35 solo) through nine weeks. He’ll be key to slowing the Panthers’ potent offense.
Hall: We’ve mentioned before about this Mansfield offense’s ability to reel off scores in bunches, and we saw that a few weeks ago in the Hornets’ 46-33 win over King Philip. It was vintage Mansfield, rushing for over 360 yards as a team. For all the talk we’ve made of the Hornets opening up the passing playbook the last few years, they can still run the ball downhill efficiently. We know Franklin can hang with them in the air, but can they stop the run?
Kurkjian: Both of these teams have proven to be solid when they choose to go to the air. The winner of this game will likely be the one who can also get its ground game going to complement that aerial attack. A lot of these Hockomock battles lately have been very high scoring and this one could be as well, but if someone can find a rhythm running the ball it could be the difference.
Perry: Mike Carden could be the deciding factor in a game that will be Franklin's first of two straight title deciding games (they play King Philip on Thanksgiving). The Panthers' kicker is considered a D1-caliber talent by head coach Brad Sidwell and won the game against Attleboro a couple of weeks ago with a 41-yard kick. In fact, he had a 48-yard attempt against Taunton that would have kept the Panthers perfect but it fell inches short. A solid kicking game is a rare luxury at this level and it could provide the edge in a tight game.
BOSTON CATHEDRAL (7-2) AT POPE JOHN XXIII (5-4)
Barboza: Mike Sullivan’s done a fine job all season taking over for Robert McMaster at quarterback for Pope John all season. For Pope John to knock off Cathedral, he’ll need to be at his best again.
Hall: Pope John is going to need to find a way to neutralize Kadeem Edge. The 6-foot-4 Cathedral receiver is a matchup problem for most small-school squads, able to win jump-balls as well as accelerate quickly in space. Also look for several Cathedral defenders to have big roles in this one, namely Cameron Seemore, Derek Welcome and Mohammed Braimah.
Kurkjian: Cathedral quarterback Kejonte Hickman has not played like a sophomore in guiding this team to where it wants to be heading into the end of the season. For Pope John to win this game, it has to force him into the types of mistakes and bad decisions that sophomores tend to make. Cathedral's offense can be brutal to defend with the number of speedy athletes it gets into space, but a disruptive defense that hassles the quarterback into bad decisions is a nice way of messing up its timing.