SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- Marlborough did everything right in the first half. The Panthers dominated time of possession, and outside of a 73-yard Drew Smiley to Mike McGillicuddy touchdown pass, they were in total control against St. John’s (Shrewsbury), holding a 13-point edge.
But, as we know, it takes two halves to win and Marlborough learned that lesson the hard way. The No. 21 Pioneers reversed roles over the final 22 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points to post a 35-20 victory this afternoon at windy Pioneer Field.
"The first half we were like 'Dawn of the Dead' out there," St. John's coach John Andreoli said. "But in the second half we played our butts off. The kids never quit and we ran the ball with some authority in the second half. Defensively we dug in and gave our offense a chance to go back to work. Marlborough is a good football team but at times we shot ourselves in the foot in that first half by turning the ball over or having penalties on first down. We had to flush the first half and needed to come out and play hard in the second which we did."
What went so well for the previously undefeated Panthers (6-1) in the opening half turned into a house of horrors following intermission. After managing a paltry 106 yards of offense in the first half, St. John's (5-2) started to find its groove offensively and finished the game with 343 yards.
Unable to successfully move the ball early on, the Pioneers began to gain traction midway through the third quarter. Holes in Marlborough's defense began to widen and Smiley, a senior, was starting to find receivers getting open in the secondary.
The start of St. John's turnaround came midway through the third. On their second possession, the Pioneers drove 81 yards behind hard-charging junior running back Shane Combs (8 carries for 79 yards). That would lead to a 1-yard Smiley dive over the goal line, narrowing the deficit to 20-14 with 1:52 remaining in the quarter.
Marlborough's offense, which conjured up 205 first half yards but only 64 the rest of the way, failed in its attempts to move the ball against a rejuvenated St. John's defense. The Panthers' continuing efforts of keeping the Pioneers offense off the field eventually would backfire.
Early in the fourth quarter, Marlborough managed to reach the Pioneers 37. Facing a fourth-and-5 Marlborough opted to go for it. Quarterback John Rumney was stopped in his tracks for no gain, thus turning the ball back over to St. John's. Rumney, a senior, threw for 106 yards on 12-of-28 passing. He also led his team in rushing, gaining 72 yards on 14 carries.
"We thought we had a play there," Panthers coach Sean Mahoney said. "We didn't want to give their offense the ball back. Offensively, their offense was starting to click at that point.
“Defensively, I felt our kids got worn down a little bit. We threw the ball fairly well in tough, windy conditions but so did they. We weren't able to run the ball and that was a big difference. When we needed to run it we weren't able to. We battled them but we needed to convert on a couple of third and fourth downs in the second half and we didn't."
With the ball back in the hands of the St. John's offense, a 23-yard completion by Smiley to T.J. Kelley set up Smiley's 37-yard scamper down the left side line into the end zone. Jack Coveney's PAT put St. John's ahead to stay 21-20 with 3:38 to go.
"Our coaches told us we needed to come out with more intensity in the second half," said Smiley, who completed 9-of-16 passes for 147 yards, a touchdown, and rushed for 106 yards on 21 attempts, finding the end zone three times. "That first half was the worst half of football this team has played. We came out of halftime and played with a lot more intensity. We knew we could pound the ball and finally got it going in the second half. The way we played in the second half is the way we need to play throughout the entire upcoming playoffs."
While the Panthers, suddenly anemic, offense continuing to struggle, the Pioneers got the ball back on Marlborough's 28. Needing just one play, Smiley darted around left end for the score to put his team up 28-20 with 2:32 left. On the Panthers' next possession, Rumney was blindsided by defensive end Jeff DeMango, which resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Mike Duquette on the Marlborough 1-yard line. Running back Brad Sylvester closed this contest out with an easy plunge over the middle to make it a 15-point contest.
"When our offensive line started to get off the ball we and started to gain some confidence," Andreoli said. "Shane [Combs] was getting some tremendous yards after contact and that really got us going. Then we were able to use the wind in the fourth quarter and started to throw the ball and move the ball down field. I think the field position game really came into play for us in that fourth quarter."
McGillicuddy's early touchdown catch staked St. John's out to a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers answered two series later after Rumney hit receiver Matt Thall for a 9-yard scoring reception. Marlborough had to settle for just the six points after the following PAT sailed wide. With Thall, who also plays linebacker, given the assignment to shadow Smiley, the senior did an outstanding job containing a serious running threat. After its first score, St. John's offense did little the remainder of the half.
Marlborough took advantage of that by grabbing a 13-7 lead at 6:44 of the second quarter on Jose Caquias' 6-yard sprint around left end. Following another Pioneer four-and-out, the Panthers set up shot at their 48. A Caquias option pass to Alec Deveau netting 50 yards set the stage for Rumney's 2-yard run at 4:57, pushing the margin to 20-7. St. John's would have the ball three more times before the half was completed but could do nothing with it.