LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- In just his third year at the helm of his alma mater, Nashoba coach Jamie Tucker believes he has a team that can re-establish the program as one of the state's best.
Friday night at Leominster's Doyle Field, his Chieftains delivered a signature win to put Central Mass, and the state, on notice, topping perennial power Leominster, 28-27, after stopping a Blue Devil two-point conversion attempt with less than a minute to play.
"This was just a great high school football game, probably the best one that I've been a part of in my three years here," Tucker said. "You play high school football for games like this, games that are fun and against great competition. Leominster has a great football team. But we came out one point ahead of them. I'm very proud, so proud of our guys."
The win puts Nashoba (6-0, 4-0 Mid Wach A) in the driver's seat for the top seed and home field advantage in Division 2 Central, and locks up at least a share of the Mid-Wach A title for the Chieftains. It's a huge step for Tucker and his upperclassmen, who have gone from winless in the Mid-Wach in 2013, to second place behind Leominster last year, to a playoff favorite this season.
It also signals that Nashoba may once again be one of the state's perennial winners, as it was under Tucker’s father, Ken. The elder Tucker retired following the 2012 season, going out on top with back-to-back Super Bowl wins and 26 consecutive victories.
The younger Tucker continued a winning streak of his own Friday night, leading Nashoba to its 10th straight win dating back to last year, and establishing an identity for his team in the process.
The Chieftains came out looking to run the ball, and that's just what they did behind a physical offensive line led by seniors Mike Curtin (OG), Will Phaneuf (OT) and Jake Hicks (C).
The line paved the way for a big day by senior running back Jake Benjamin, who finished with 173 yards and a touchdown, and senior quarterback Robby Atwood, who made every play presented to him, finishing with one of the more interesting stat lines you'll ever see: 3 of 3 passing for 80 yards and a touchdown, plus two carries for three yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"We have the best offensive line I've seen," Benjamin said. "They make the holes and really make it easy on us."
"Robby's a great kid, just a cool customer," Tucker said of his quarterback. "There's nobody I'd rather have playing quarterback for us right now."
Nashoba marched down and scored on its first possession, after forcing a Leominster punt, when Atwood punched it in from a yard out. But Leominster (5-1, 2-1 Mid-Wach A) would punch back quickly, thanks to some stellar play from junior quarterback Noah Gray. Facing fourth and goal, Gray couldn't find an open receiver, so he simply spun away from a defender and reversed his field, taking it seven yards for the game tying score.
The following drive would be more of the same from Nashoba though, as Benjamin picked up two quick first downs on the ground, then finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown run.
Moments later, Benjamin would break up a third down pass on defense, and the Chieftains would go to the half leading 14-7.
But Gray, who finished the night with four total touchdowns (2 passing, 2 rushing), would answer again. Following a Nashoba fumble to open the second half, Gray found fullback Anthony Dandidnin off play action for a six-yard score to even things at 14.
But the Chieftains would go off script on their next drive. Atwood sold a beautiful play fake and lofted a ball right down the seam to receiver senior Tony Kennon, who didn't have a Leominster defender within 20 yards of him, for a 45-yard score. As quickly as Leominster had evened the game, Nashoba has seized the momentum right back.
Penalties would rear their ugly head for Leominster on its next drive, an unfortunate theme for the Blue Devils Friday. After back-to-back false start penalties, Leominster faced a third-and-17, but Gray bailed them out, delivering a pinpoint pass to senior receiver Keith Jackson for 20 yards.
A few plays later, Leominster faced fourth down at the Nashoba six, but Gray rolled out to his right and found Allen Link for the equalizer.
"The penalties were killers, I stressed that before the game," Leominster coach Dave Palazzi said. "We just have to keep our heads, but Noah played great. We had two fourth down touchdown plays where the O-line blocked it up and Noah delivered. I thought we played well to come back and keep fighting, just came up one play short."
The Chieftains began the fourth quarter with the ball, and ate up over six minutes of clock on a 68-yard drive that ended with a two-yard Atwood touchdown run. The dual-threat quarterback also completed his other two passes of the night on that drive, including a fourth-and-four conversion to Kennon that went for 19 yards.
The Blue Devils had enough time to work though, and drove down to the Nashoba 3-yard line, where Gray would run it in on an option keeper. Palazzi made the call to go for two and the win, but the Blue Devils were caught with 12 men on the field before the try, pushing them back five yards.
After a timeout, Palazzi sent his offense back on the field, but Nashoba senior defensive end Egan Bachtell came off the edge with quick pressure, forcing Gray's pass intended for junior receiver Angel Colina to fall harmlessly to the turf.
"This is my third year here, and I'm really proud of these guys," Tucker said. "These guys kind of grew up with me too, so I'm really connected to these guys and I love this group. I think that's been the biggest factor for us so far."
Nashoba will move on to host Fitchburg in their Mid-Wach A finale. A win would lock up the title outright, while Leominster will look to get back on track at home against rival St. John's (Shrewsbury).