Some quick-hit thoughts around the state following the first weekend of MIAA State Championship Playoffs, and a few thoughts headed into this week's games:
1a. Barring a lightning strike, Natick’s Troy Flutie will pass Everett’s Jonathan DiBiaso for the top spot on the state’s all-time touchdown pass list over the next month or so (I predict he’ll do it this Friday at Barnstable). Currently, the Boston College commit is the state’s all-time leader in passing yards (8,364), doing so last weekend in the King Philip win to pass former Barnstable star and current Penn State backup D.J. Crook.
Flutie currently sits at 101 TD passes, and needs just two to tie DiBiaso -– something that, at this current clip, he could very well do in the first quarter. And with 36 touchdown passes through the first seven games, he needs just eight to set the state’s single-season mark –- another bar set by DiBiaso.
Suffice it to say Flutie has arrived at these two sacred marks with much less fanfare, and frankly I think we’ve taken for granted how easy he’s made it look these past three years with a much less talented supporting cast. No disrespect to the current crop of Redhawks, but Flutie does not have the luxury of throwing to targets as talented as Matt Costello, Manny Asprilla, Jakarrie Washington or Jalen Felix. He doesn’t have a four-star recruit, hailed as one of the East Coast’s top line prospects, protecting his blind side. He doesn’t have a future Division 1 linebacker picking up the blitz in the backfield. Granted, Natick’s own Brian Dunlap may one day surpass them all in talent, but he has yet to play a down this year due to a nasty foot injury.
Flutie is always going to have his critics. His Manziel-like gunslinging style of play is never going to please everyone. The critics just need to accept him for what he is, a fantastic high school quarterback with a flair for the dramatic and an intuitive knack for turning sparklers into fireworks. It’s been an absolute pleasure to cover him.
1b. All that considered, I don't think Flutie has seen a secondary this talented since last year's Div. 2A Super Bowl loss to Beverly. And even then, it was the work of a safety, Brendan Flaherty, that gave him the most fits. Great coverage cornerbacks are hard to come by at this level, and Barnstable boasts two of the very best in Derek Estes and Colby Blaze. I'm curious to see what kind of passing game plan the Redhawks devise for this one. The Raiders obviously are comfortable leaving their corners on islands, but they've also been known in the past to operate out of Cover 3 shells against spread offenses.
Going the other way, Natick's defense has allowed 81 points the last two games. That doesn't bode well when facing a team as bold as Barnstable, which excels in the vertical passing game and blends some unique ripples into its zone running scheme. Linemen like Owen Murray and Billy Grimmer have been giving quarterback Kristian Lucashensky great protection all season. If you are Natick, do you send an additional rusher and risk getting read, flushed out and taken for a big gain the other way?
2. Have to say this was an impressive shutout defensive effort for Lowell on the road against a St. John’s Prep team that was missing many of its key personnel, especially in the trenches. The Red Raiders’ swarming, athletic defense sunk its claws into the Eagles for five sacks, four interceptions (one returned for a TD) and three forced fumbles, including one returned for a score.
If you’ve seen Lowell’s 3-5 defense, you know they love to zone blitz, applying pre-snap movement liberally to disguise pressure and in turn confuse blocking schemes. They send middle backer Shyheim Cullen up the interior gaps a ton, which in my opinion makes the defense at its most dangerous when he drops back into coverage.
The signature play using this tactic came in the third quarter. The Raiders walked up three backers –- Cullen, and outside backers Nicolau Coury and John Healy –- then dropped Cullen off the line of scrimmage into coverage at the snap. Ends Alex Quintero and Malik Settles both drew double teams, leaving a free shot for Coury and Healy coming off opposite edges. With just one running back now having to pick up two blitzers, quarterback Mike Geaslen was easily dropped for a loss.
Just an impressive, impressive outing for the Raiders, a signature win for a program that’s been knocking on the door the last few years. They’re in for a pretty tall task this week against No. 1 seed Everett; logic says the Crimson Tide, who almost never get out-coached, will figure out a way to solve this athletic Lowell defense. But you never know, crazier things have happened this season.
3. The first round of Western Mass. playoffs couldn't have worked out any better, with Longmeadow and Springfield Central squaring off in D2 for a rematch of last month's 19-7 Central win. Simply put, Central is experiencing unprecedented success on offense this season, averaging 395 yards per game and outscoring the opposition 308-81 through eight games. Last week's much-hyped game with Westfield -- the perceived second-best team in the West -- quickly turned into a gong show, Central cruising easily to a 52-13 win.
It's always tougher to play your rival second time around, and it's worth mentioning Longmeadow -- not Everett -- held Central to its lowest point total of the season. The Lancers had probably the best game plan I've seen yet for defending Central's elite group of receivers, playing a wide Cover 2 with safeties aligned to the numbers and cornerbacks playing press coverage, essentially forcing quarterback Cody Williams to thrust difficult throws up the middle. The Lancers' defensive ends were also terrific, particularly the quick-twitched Marchant Campbell, who got the best of Sean Lee at times with a "push-pull" technique.
4. It's going to come down to whoever sets the early tone physically, but I'm thinking this Attleboro offense -- known to take some big shots -- can do some damage against Bridgewater-Raynham. The Blue Bombardiers run a unique offense, heavy on wingbacks and using shifts and motions to create sudden mismatches. The ability to morph on the fly is predicated on the versatility of its skill personnel, and they've got plenty of that in guys like David Duquette, Thomas Burns, Luke Morrison and dual-threat quarterback Tim Walsh (who is as unpredictable as they come).
But no versatile target may be more important for what they're doing right now than junior scatback Damon Belin. Built with track star's speed at a wiry 5-foot-11, Belin demonstrates patience running behind big lineman, able to stop on a dime then accelerate quickly again for some sharp cuts. When they shift him to the perimeter, Belin can exploit an underneath zone or occasionally get behind the safeties going deep.
5. Mike Panepinto has looked like a man possessed this last month of the season. Needham has always benefited greatly from lacrosse-bred skill, and the UMass-bound Panepinto may be the best lacrosse-committed talent in the state this year. He came into the playoffs leading the state in rushing (1,240 yards), reeled off another 230 or so last weekend against Duxbury, and will eclipse the 2,000-yard mark at this rate. Heck, if he keeps it up, 2,500 may even be in play here.