WEYMOUTH, Mass. – Alex Hilger was waiting for a game like this.
For most of the 2012 football season, all the Natick wide receiver and defensive back could do is watch from the sideline and cheer on his teammates, after a broken collarbone claimed most of his junior year. He still bears the scar of the injury, hidden underneath his shoulder pads.
The irony of the situation, in the No. 7 Redhawks’ 35-14 win over Weymouth Thursday afternoon, is that Hilger’s performance was, in part, due to the absence of one of his teammates. With ESPN Boston preseason All-State receiver Brian Dunlap lost for this season, the scene was set for Hilger to make up for lost time.
Hilger hauled in 14 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also showed up in the kicking game, connecting on each of Natick’s point-after tries and booting several kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.
It came to the surprise of none on the Redhawks’ sideline, who saw Hilger’s efforts as a case of promise realized.
“We’ve always known Alex is pretty dangerous,” Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli said. “We knew if our offense was going to move the ball, he was going to be the focal point. And Troy [Flutie] is so good at finding the open receiver, and Justin Robinson stepped up, and Andrew Boynton stepped up. We just had a lot of guys make plays for us.”
Hilger deflected praise when asked if he’d become Flutie’s top target, instead crediting his quarterback for reading the defense.
“They were playing way off with their safety,” Hilger said, “and we were saying, ‘Hey, let’s just keep taking these short routes.’”
Along with Hilger, fellow senior Andrew Boynton also assumed a greater load in Natick’s passing game, grabbing a 15-yard touchdown pass from Flutie to open scoring in the second quarter.
The Redhawks (1-0) clung to a 14-7 half-time lead after Wildcats quarterback Matt Long lofted a fade to the back left pylon to Ryan Ainslie for a 21-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining in the second.
In the second half, Natick used four Weymouth (0-1) turnovers to run away with a win that looked much more difficult than the score indicated.
“We got a little luck, when they put one on the ground, but then we had a great drive and we punched it in,” Mortarelli said. “That was really the difference, in my mind.”
After marching down the field off the opening kickoff of the second half, the Wildcats lost a fumble at Natick’s 3-yard line on a first-and-goal rush.
Fifteen plays and 97 yards later, Flutie (22 of 29, 247 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) capped the statement drive with a 1-yard plunge over right guard.
“We talked about it in the locker room at halftime,” Hilger said, “one stop and a good drive and the game’s over.”
Oh, what a relief it is: For a few tense moments during the second quarter, Mortarelli’s stomach resided in his throat.
After running for a 5-yard gain on second and 9, Flutie pulled up lame on his left leg. The Boston College commit then sat out the next two plays and was replaced under center by junior Nick Olson, who would later go on to nab an interception.
Following the near brush with disaster, Flutie returned to the sideline in good spirits, insisting he was fine.
Aside from his contributions on game day, Flutie also assumed another role during practice this week: that of Weymouth’s multi-talented athlete David Harrison.
“You can’t simulate the speed of Harrison during practice,” Mortarelli said.
So he had the idea to use Flutie, perhaps the closest facsimile of what Harrison offers, on the scout team. Of course, that comes with perils of its own kind.
“It’s a little dangerous running your starting quarterback on scout team offense,” Mortarelli said.
A multitude of possibilities: Speaking of Harrison, a preseason All-Stater in his own right; there was the issue of exactly what form the Wildcats offense would assume. For the most part, Harrison was flexed out wide and sophomore Matt Long ran the read option at quarterback.
Long, who saw varsity snaps last year as a freshman, proved capable Thursday, making plays with his feet (a 49-yard run on Weymouth’s second play from scrimmage) and his arm (a pair of touchdowns to Ainslie, including a 55-yard play in the fourth quarter). Along with senior back Derrell Fernandez, the Wildcats have a stable of versatile athletes who can line up at multiple positions and create matchup problems for defenses.
Turnover battle: Both teams committed their share of turnovers Thursday, with the Wildcats’ four second-half giveaways factoring greatly.
The defensive secondary of both teams exhibited good ball instincts, primarily Weymouth’s Tyler O’Brien, who snagged two picks.
Natick safety Mike Abbruzzese also had an interception in addition to two fumble recoveries by the Redhawks in the second half.