DUDLEY, Mass. -- Facing the spread offense in its first two games, No. 6 Leominster spent this past week delving into the nuisances of some old-school football. The Blue Devils opponent Friday night was Shepherd Hill -- a team with a predominant reputation in running the double wing.
Certainly, one week does not allow enough preparation time to handle this style of offense, and during the first half, it showed. Leominster was having trouble figuring out who to key on in this tightly-bunched set-up.
But as good teams learn to do, the right adjustments were made and the Blue Devils threw a net over the Rams in the second half by allowing zero points en route to a 41-14 victory at Carmignani Memorial Field.
"Shepherd Hill grinded us pretty good in the first half but our defense really stepped up in the second half," said Blue Devils coach Dave Palazzi. "That's just getting the job done when you need to get it done. Credit our defensive coaches Charlie Raff, Kevin Murphy and Mike Vaillette for the adjustments they made at halftime. They did a great job coaching these kids up and the kids were listening. There was a lot of violence going on underneath those piles and a lot of big hitting by both teams. I really don't see that team losing to many ball games the rest of the way. They are well-coached and talented."
Leominster, the defending two-time Division 1 Central Mass. Super Bowl champions, improve to 3-0.
But this one did not come easy. As expected, Shepherd Hill (2-1) proved to be a staunch opponent. A Division 4 program, the Rams proved they are a team to be reckoned as the season moves forward. They gave Leominster all it could handle in the opening half, with solid running from junior quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume and senior running back Jake Gelb. At the half, Shepherd Hill only trailed 20-14.
But the Ram offense looked much different over the final 22 minutes. Leominster showed more patients, waiting to see who would get the ball out of the double wing first and then strike, instead of anticipating. Having rolled up 169 yards in the first half that finished with Guillaume diving in from a yard out to trail by just six points, it appeared as though the Blue Knights had a legitimate fight on their hands.
Getting the ball to begin the second half, the Rams gave it away after failing to convert on a fourth-and-four play. Leominster's offense (438 yards), which has proven that it can score from anywhere on the field, did just that. A 66-yard touchdown run by junior back James Gurley on the ensuing possession had the Blue Devils in front 26-14.
Following a four-and-out by the Rams, Leominster again drove down field, capped off by senior quarterback Neil O'Connor's 38-yard scoring strike to Mayson Williams (3 receptions, 104 yards, 2 TD) to make it a 34-14 contest with a minute remaining in the quarter.
While Shepherd Hill's struggles on offense continued to mount, the Blue Devil offense was chomping at the bit to get the ball back. Late in the final quarter they put a bow on this one after junior Eddie Rivera scored on a 4-yard run around left end.
Leominster opened this tilt off in fine shape. Taking the opening kickoff, the Blue Devils marched 50 yards before O'Connor (9-of-14 for 188 yards, 3 TD, INT) found receiver Jake Allain (3 catches, 62 yards) 10 yards past the secondary for a 47-yard touchdown. Shepherd Hill shook off that score by mounting a drive of its own moments later. The Rams marched 77 yards before Jean-Guillaume (70 yards on 17 carries) busted up the middle from 12 yards away for the score. Jean-Guillaume also added the conversion run giving Shepherd Hill an 8-6 lead midway through the first quarter.
But the Blue Devils responded with another long drive that ended with Gurley (105 yards on 9 attempts) barreling in from the 3. However the conversion pass failed and Leominster had to settle for a 12-8 lead.
"We knew this was going to be a tough game coming in," said O'Connor. "Shepherd Hill is a very tough team that likes to pound it. They're big up front and their running backs and quarterback run hard.
“Our line also played great and were able to open things up for everyone and we were able to create some space. When everything is working we can be tough. Our coaches had us prepared for this one. Coming off wins over St. John's (Shrewsbury) and Lowell last week we were happy to get out of here with a win tonight."
Midway through the second quarter a solid drive by Shepherd Hill, which lost to Nashoba Regional in last year's Division 2 Central Mass. Super Bowl, ended abruptly after coming up a yard short on fourth down. Handing the ball back over to the Blue Devils, they were able to increase their advantage to 12 points after Williams, on a comeback screen, hauled in O'Connor's pass and bolted 57 yards down field into the end zone.
The Rams, once again, didn't fret as they put fourth a sustained drive following the score. They even tossed in a new wrinkle as Jean-Guillaume rolled outside the pocket and connected with Gelb in stride for a 33-yard reception. That, in turn, set up Guillaume's touchdown run in the final minute before halftime, slicing the deficit to six going into the break. Shepherd Hill finished with 273 yards of offense.
"That was a very good, tough football team we played," said Rams coach Chris Lindstrom, a former Boston University standout defensive end who spent three years in the NFL with the Bengals, Buccaneers and Chiefs. "This is new for us to play this level of competition but I thought we held our own for the most part. I feel we're still going to be a very good football team. We just need to re-group but I think we are very explosive. Overall I thought we did a nice job tonight. I felt the longer we were out there playing a very good team on both sides of the ball the better we're going to be."