NATICK, Mass. -- It's not what he does when cozy in the pocket that has had Natick faithful chattering about Troy Flutie all season long.
It's how the gun-slinging quarterback gambles, going for the home run balls -- or when flushed out of the tackle box, extending the play to the sideline, seemingly running for his life -- that inspires.
The 26-14 win for the Redhawks (10-1) this morning over Thanksgiving rival Framingham (5-6) at Bowditch Field, which sealed their Division 2A playoff berth, was testament to all that. On Natick's second offensive play from scrimmage, which called for two go routes up the seams by the inside slot receivers, Flutie (18-of-21, 319 yards, 3 total TD) looked off the safety and went deep to junior Justin Robinson in single-coverage for an 80-yard touchdown.
Flutie's next act was a thing to behold. Facing third and eight from the Flyers' 27 midway through the second quarter, the 6-foot junior rolled to his left, then reversed direction and darted for the right sideline before finally dropping back and going cross-body to a wide-open Alex Hilger underneath going the opposite way. Hilger then cut northwest and raced the last 15 yards to the left pylon, losing his helmet as he dove over the goal line for a 14-0 advantage.
"I was looking for Brian [Dunlap] at first, and I didn't have him, so I started to scramble," Flutie said. "I saw Alex cutting across, and I knew he'd make a play."
The Flyers opened up the second half with a three-minute, 71-yard scoring drive, aided by senior receiver Nick Igoe (six catches, 122 yards) and punctuated with a six-yard pass underneath from Chris Bloomingdale (13-of-22, 181 yards, 2 total TD) to Matt Cronin. But the Redhawks, as usual, responded in style. Flutie capped a 71-yard drive with a one-yard sneak; then, early in the fourth quarter, Cronin was stuffed just inches from the first down from the Redhawks' six after getting gobbled up by a gang tackle led by Jack Lowell, Mike Abbruzzese and Zach Hilger.
Nick Lee rounded out Natick's scoring with a 15-yard dive up the middle with just under four minutes to go. And with it, Natick clinched its first win over Framingham at Bowditch since 2006.
Mad Bomber: When discussing Flutie's style, it's easy to draw lineage into this -- his uncle is Doug Flutie, after all -- but the style of play hasn't come without its thorns, either. Flutie threw two first-half red zone interceptions, including one at the goal line on an underthrown ball deep to Dunlap.
But for the Redhawks, one of the state's most prolific offenses (413 yards, 33 points per game), the positive outweighs the hiccups.
"I think that he has the confidence," head coach Mark Mortarelli said of Flutie's play-extending style. "Obviously he has a lot of athletic ability, but he always keeps his eyes downfield, and he's always looking for a big one. That's why he was down on himself when he threw that pick in the end zone.
"But you can't have it both ways. He's gonna take chances, and more often than not he makes you pay. I'm certainly not going to yell at him for those picks."
More options, more fun: Natick's leading receiver, the sophomore Dunlap, came into today's contest with 136 catches for 2,417 yards and 30 touchdowns since the start of the 2011 season. But for the first time in his already incredible career, Dunlap did not register a touchdown catch, finishing the day with five catches for 67 yards.
Once again, as Dunlap drew the primary attention from defenders, Robinson stepped up admirably, with six catches for 150 yards. The 6-foot-2 Robinson is a big and physical target who is as reliable on short routes as he is on jump balls.
The biggest key, however, might have been the rejuvenated game of Alex Hilger. The Redhawks coaching staff was high on the 6-foot-3 junior in the preseason before he missed most of the season with a broken collarbone. Today, he looked like that promising preseason form, with four catches for 69 yards and the darting second-quarter TD.
"It helps out Brian Dunlap quite a bit," Mortarelli said. "Because teams are going to think twice about double-teaming him, having safeties cheat on him and all of that stuff. Alex is explosive, he's one of the best athletes around -- in any sport. So he's certainly gonna make our offense go."
Said Lee of Hilger, "He's a freak athlete. He definitely is going to be open, because teams are going to start doubling, tripling Brian, but Hilger is a great asset. He really makes our offense that much better."
Defense delivers: The fouth-down stuffing of Cronin just inches -- literally, inches -- from the first-down marker might have been the momentum swing that put Natick over the edge. Mortarelli dug into the playbook on fourth down for a call he hasn't made yet this season -- a double blitz by the outside linebackers off the edges, with C and D gap responsibilities, coupled with under moves by the defensive ends.
The call turned out to be just right.
"We just said, 'Hey, we're going all in'," Mortarelli said, with a chuckle. "We needed it. That was the season, we felt like. And it worked."
Just as crucial, however, was the Redhawks' stop on the game's opening drive. Framingham recovered its own opening kickoff at the Natick 29, but stalled six plays into the drive at the 17, ending with two straight incompletions by Bloomingdale.
Late in the first half, Flutie came up with an interception -- his second in as many weeks, after getting his first reps ever at safety in the Redhawks' emotion win over Walpole on Nov. 9.
With that kind of success, Mortarelli has been satisfied with the decision to insert Flutie into the secondary. The Redhawks typically deploy zone coverage, letting the safeties play loose (see: Jack Turner's five-pick outing against Needham), and having both Flutie and Dunlap back in the secondary adds to the element.
"They have to cover each other in practice," Mortarelli said of Flutie and Dunlap. "They're both great cover guys, and they're both great D-backs. We just don't want to burn them out, because obviously they're so immportant to our offense. We've got to be smart with them."
NATICK 26, FRAMINGHAM 14
NAT (10-1) 7 7 6 6 --- 26
FRA (5-6) 0 0 7 7 --- 14
N - Justin Robinson 80 pass from Troy Flutie (Sam Lenson kick) 7:29
N - Alex Hilger 27 pass from Flutie (Lenson kick) 6:16
F - Matt Cronin 6 pass from Chris Bloomingdale (Julian Tamburro kick) 7:10
N - Flutie 1 run (kick blocked) 7:47
N - Nick Lee 15 run (kick failed) 3:53
F - Bloomingdale 1 run (Tamburro kick) :58