LOWELL, Mass. -- Since the beginning of the preseason, much has been made about Lowell's funky, frenetic offense, a blur-paced spread scheme sprinkled with enough smattering of screens, draws, crossing routes and zone reads to keep a defense on its heels in no-man's land trying to envelop it all.
It was enough of a concern for Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi that earlier this week, he said he called his players and coaching staff "on the carpet", challenging their toughness and mental discipline. As it turns out, the best defense tonight against the Red Raiders' Oregon-like scheme was to keep them off the field.
The Blue Devils (2-0) dominated time of possession in this highly-anticipated regional battle between two state title contenders, rolling out to a 26-6 lead in the third quarter en route to a breezy 33-20 defeat of Lowell (2-1) where the aggressor was never in question.
"We just said, to a man I asked them to step up and be the man at your own position, and respond to their first punch," Palazzi said. "I thought they did that."
The Red Raiders drew first blood, marching 64 yards in nine plays, punching it in from five yards out on an inside zone from Ngaiiva Mason (15 carries, 86 yards) for a 6-0 score less than three minutes into the contest.
Leominster responded with an offensive look trademark of Blue Devils teams past, but not used yet in 2013 -- preseason, or last week's home-opener. Palazzi rolled out a "double wing" formation -- a red zone staple for Blue Devil squads prior to the coach's arrival in 2011 -- on the next series, and took Lowell's 3-5 defensive front by surprise. They marched 77 yards in 14 plays and six minutes, twice converting fourth and one in their own end, punching it in on a 17-yard strike from quarterback Neil O'Connor (156 passing yards, 3 TD; 16 carries, 66 yards, TD) to fullback Matt Banchs (4 catches, 69 yards) for his first of two touchdown catches.
Lowell's next two drives were three-and-out's that lasted a combined 2:09, and Leominster responded each time with scores. First, they capped a 63-yard, 12-play, six-minute drive with a 36-yard strike from O'Connor to Mayson Williams, running a fade route down the left sideline. The next trip down, the Blue Devils went 66 yards in 17 plays, eating up all but 13 seconds of the final 6:08 of the first half. James Gurley (26 carries, 91 yards) punched it in from a yard out on fourth and goal for the 18-6 halftime margin.
Leominster received to start the second half, and opened with another monster drive, this one going 80 yards in 15 plays and seven minutes, capped with a nifty 10-yard option keeper by O'Connor, followed by a rollout pass to Jarell Addo on the two-point conversion for the 26-6 score.
In the fourth quarter, Leominster sandwiched another O'Connor-Banchs touchdown pass, this one for 19 yards, in between two pretty scoring strikes from Brian Dolan to Jack Galvin.
Owning the clock: Between Leominster's six-minute drive to end the first half, a 15-minute halftime break, and the Devils' seven-minute opening drive of the second, it felt like Lowell's offense was off the field for an hour of real time.
Leominster dominated time of possession in the first half, holding on to the ball for 17:33 of the first half to Lowell's paltry 4:27 on four offensive drives. A big part of that was Lowell's combination of uber-fast no-huddle tempo and failure to convert on third downs. In the first half, the Red Raiders averaged 20 seconds, sometimes less, between plays; after their game-opening scoring drive, they failed to convert another third down the rest of the game, finishing 2-of-7 on the night.
Part of Leominster's practice week involves what players call "Intensity Tuesdays", a grueling mixture of sprints and suicides coordinated by assistant coach Charlie Raff. Against this high-powered scheme, O'Connor felt he and his teammates were conditioned well enough to hang around with them.
"He [Raff] definitely pushes us," O'Connor said. "We know why we’re doing it, and it’s for these reasons. They’re not doing it because they hate us, they're doing it to help us. We understand that, and it pays off."
As a result, Leominster out-gained the Raiders 207-68 in first half yardage, running 43 plays to just 14 by Lowell. For the game, they outgained Lowell 386-211 from scrimmage. Superstar receiver Galvin, an ESPN Boston Preseason All-State selection, finished with two catches for 90 yards and two scores; but he was held without catch until the final 8:41 of the game.
Such is the mortal flaw with many of these uptempo, copious "Blur" schemes. When everything is clicking, these offenses look exotic. But, as tonight explicated, they sure can unravel in a hurry.
Asked if he contemplated slowing the pace down at all, Lowell head coach John Florence said simply, "It’s not really our style. We want to go put the defense under duress and go from there."
Fourth and guts: Everett coach John DiBiaso's decision last week to go for it on fourth and two from his own 23 last Friday in a loss to Xaverian, and it has been a topic of discussion this week. DiBiaso's gamble, while not his first rodeo, ended up backfiring. Palazzi's gamble with it tonight, meanwhile, showed how big gambles can pay off.
The Blue Devils were a perfect 3-for-3 on fourth downs tonight, all of them coming within their own end. Twice on their first drive of the night they converted on fourth and one, first from their own 32, then from their own 43. Later in the first half, the Blue Devils converted a fourth down from their own 29.
Asked about how much he weighed the risk of such decisions, Palazzi said there was "no doubt in my mind" he was going to go for it on those fourth downs.
"What I saw the first half, the first drive out of Lowell, I thought this could get out of hand quickly," Palazzi said. "I just thought that was the play of the game, it was intuition. It was an out of control call, I agree, but I just felt it in my gut that we needed to get a first down there.
"The tables could have turned there. We punt there, and they go down and score, we’re down 14 now. It’s a different ball game, we’re [probably] spread out, trying to throw the ball around and that’s really not what we’re trying to do."
Often, such a maneuver is meant to test the skin of his players -- experienced or inexperienced, proven or unproven -- and see what kind of backbone they possess. No question, that factor weighed into the decision making.
"We knew we were coming up here to an Eastern Mass. team, a Division 1 team, we’ve played big games before but we had to match their intensity," Palazzi said. "That was part of the call, we just had to see if we were tough enough because as you see they’re a great team, great players, they were real physical on film."
Double Wing catches Raiders off-guard: The "Double Wing" package was often a staple of Leominster squads under legendary former coach John Dubzinski, particularly in the red zone, and it had been a novelty package seen in spurts the first two seasons under Palazzi. But neither in the preseason, nor last week's home-opener against St. John's of Shrewsbury, did we see any shred of the formation.
Suffice it to say when the Blue Devils opened up in the package early in the first quarter, and stayed in it for the most part throughout the half, it took Lowell by surprise. The Red Raiders deploy a 3-5-3 defensive front, a scheme known for its ability to disguise its blitzes, and one that better suits its speedy personnel. The linemen's one-inch splits in the double wing strip a defense of virtually all of its blitz packages, and Florence admitted this typically isn't a look they've had great success against.
"We see a little bit of it, with Tewksbury, it’s obviously something we haven’t played well [against] the last three years, and tonight was another example of that," he said. "With our style of defense, and the linemen we have, that’s a weakness for us to be in. We have to come ready [for that].
"It was obviously very difficult [defending it]. They chewed the clock the second quarter, and I think we knew it was coming on the sidelines, we just didn’t hit our gaps correctly and just let them push the pile. We were playing with our pad level too high."
Palazzi didn't want to get into a track meet with the Raiders, and felt this was their best method at keeping the game at a comfortable tempo. In basketball terms, Leominster matched Lowell's full-court press with a Princeton offense.
"[They run a] 3-5 with some very good athletes in there," Palazzi said. "We just thought with this league, and the way they run football, and a lot of the teams they play are throwing the ball like it’s backyard football, we just decided we’re going to go a little power football and see where we’d start. It kept on working, so we kept running it, and the kids were fired up about it. But Lowell made a lot of adjustments, they’ve got a great staff, they did a great job adjusting to it at the end."
Banchs moves the chains: Gurley took on a Yeoman's load, and paid for it after the game ("I’m feeling sore, but it’s a great win for the team," he chuckled), but an underrated part of Leominster's success on offense tonight came from the fullback Banchs. In addition to blocking for Gurley, Banchs was a vital part of the passing game.
All four of Banchs catches, including the two TD strikes, came in the flats. Out of the I-formation, Banchs would shoot up through the middle of the line and release to the flat, where a Lowell defender often failed to pick him up. O'Connor, rolling to his left or right, would hit him perfectly in stride for an easy first down and possibly more.
LEOMINSTER 33, LOWELL 20
LEO 6 12 8 7 --- 33
LOW 6 0 0 14 --- 20
Low - Ngaiiva Mason 5 run (kick failed) 8:38
Leo - Matt Banchs 22 pass from Neil O'Connor (kick blocked) 2:31
Leo - Mayson Williams 36 pass from O'Connor (pass failed) 7:10
Leo - James Gurley 1 run (rush failed) :08
Leo - O'Connor 10 run (Tim DeCarolis pass from O'Connor) 3:59
Low - Jack Galvin 73 pass from Brian Dolan (Evan McHugh kick) 8:41
Leo - Banchs 19 pass from O'Connor (Christian Lewis kick) 5:52
Low - Galvin 17 pass from Dolan (McHugh kick) 5:02