LEOMINSTER, Mass. –- A year ago this week, the Lowell Red Raiders played host to Leominster, looking to make a statement against the perennial power. Yet they were virtually wiped off their own turf by haltime, their defense caught off-guard by a surprise “Double Wing” scheme, their Chip Kelly-influenced offense kept off the field for nearly an hour in real time.
It goes without saying, then, that vengeance was at the top of the list for Lowell tonight in its trip up to Doyle Field. And did the Raiders ever return the favor, turning in a terrific defensive performance to shut out the Blue Devils in the second half en route to a 14-10 victory.
“We’ve been working hard all week. We didn’t want what happened last year to happen again,” said Syracuse-bound linebacker Shyheim Cullen, who also led Lowell in rushing with 24 carries for 108 yards. “So we really worked hard tonight.”
Said Raiders head coach John Florence, “It feels good. It was ugly, lot of turnovers, but our defense played well.”
Lowell (3-0) took the opening kickoff and grinded out a 15-play, 76-yard scoring drive that lasted nearly six minutes. After setting up first and 10 in the red zone with a 31-yard strike to Lucky Sesay (two catches, 83 yards, TD), junior quarterback Shaymus Dunn nearly saw his drive halted when Leominster’s Keith Jackson thwarted him for a pick-six, making a beautiful jump on a deep skinny post and returning it 95 yards the other way. The interception was negated by a roughing the passer call, however, bringing up a new set of downs at the Blue Devils’ 7.
Four plays later, on fourth and goal from the 15, Dunn found Egan Ojunga behind coverage, and the senior slipped to the turf as he hauled in the pass in the end zone for the early 7-0 lead.
Leominster went three-and-out on its ensuing drive, but recovered a muffed punt at the Lowell 32 to get new life again. They made the most of it, tying it up on fourth and goal from the Lowell 1 when Noah Gray hit tight end Connor Skinner on a play action pass rolling to his right, for a 7-7 score early in the second.
Derek Franks made his first of two picks of Dunn later in the second to set up the next Leominster score, jumping in front of a route at the sideline and returning it across midfield. The five-play drive ended with a 30-yard Alex Rivera field goal for a 10-7 lead with 4:23 left in the first half.
Leominster’s lead lasted less than two minutes. Three plays into the ensuing Lowell drive, Dunn hooked up with Sesay on a deep post for an easy-looking 52-yard score and 14-10 lead, a deficit Leominster was never able to recover from.
In the second half, led by senior linebacker Nicolau Coury, Leominster was only able to convert one third down, by virtue of a pass interference call, and totaled roughly 100 yards of offense. Twice they were thwarted in the red zone, including a 30-yard field goal attempt that sailed just wide left.
Still, the game was not yet in hand until the final minute, when senior safety Chris Cesar pounced on an overthrown ball down the right sideline for the Raiders’ third and final pick of Gray.
“He’s very consistent, just makes big plays,” Florence said of Coury. “His speed is just….He’s so athletic. And he had a ton of big plays again tonight.”
Gurley goes down: There was a bit of a scary moment late in the game when Blue Devils running back/defensive back James Gurley (20 carries, 76 yards) was taken off the field in a golf cart after taking a cleat to his chest trying to make a tackle.
“I think he just got a heel to the sternum or something. I don’t know, just precautionary. He was pretty banged up,” Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi said. “We’ll see. He’s having trouble breathing a little bit, but hopefully he’ll be alright.”
Losing Gurley for any length of time would be a big blow to the Blue Devils’ offense. Gurley was the Devils’ leading rusher a year ago, and the compact, tough-nosed senior is their feature back again this fall.
Turning up the pressure: In the Raiders’ 3-5-3 defensive scheme, their signature has typically been the way they play inside backers Cullen and Coury over the interior “A” and “B” gaps, utilizing plenty of pre-snap movement and often feigning blitzes on either side to confuse linemen.
But in the second half, it was pressure off edge where they had most success, with Cesar and Josh Villanueva sometimes hurrying Gray into throwing the ball away. One of Lowell’s most crucial defensive plays came midway through the fourth quarter, when Coury forced a third and 24 after shooting up the playside “B” gap and body slamming Gray to the turf 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
“All week just saw what we had to accomplish – watching the line, from guards to fullback,” Coury said. “I just had to get in there and make the play.”
Coury, who currently holds a scholarship offer from Central Connecticut State and a walk-on offer from Duke, is praised in Lowell for his consistency. With Cullen attracting so much attention in the middle, it’s almost pick-your-poison at times.
“The last two teams we faced [Dracut and Chelmsford] play real tight inside, so that limited Shy a little bit,” Florence said. “I think teams are probably going to go away from the middle, so that benefits Nic – especially in passing situations, where an offensive tackle has trouble with foot speed keeping up with him.”
Growth spurt: Dunn, a junior, came into training camp splitting snaps under center, but injuries have forced him into a full-time role. The amount of maturation he’s made since the preseason was not lost on anyone following Friday’s win.
“Going into the season, we didn’t even think that he was going to start,” Cullen said. “But he stepped up tremendously. I believed in the kid, but I honestly didn’t think he’d turn out like this.
Just how much has Dunn matured in a short amount of time? Look no further than the veteran throw the rookie QB made with three minutes left in the game to nearly sew up the win. Facing third and six from their own 19, the Raiders lined up in a shotgun formation with Cullen, the tailback, motioning across. After the snap, Cullen swung to the flat for a wheel screen, Dunn pump-faked to him once and then turned his eyes upfield, where Ojunga hauled in a 47-yard pass.
“It was amazing, I couldn’t believe it,” Cullen said of the play. “I was in awe."