FOXBOROUGH — At the high school level of football, a team can increase its odds of converting third downs if it can establish its quarterback as a running threat on the all-important down.
Problem is, St. John’s Prep quarterback Matt Crowley is, in the words of his head coach Brian St. Pierre, “slow as [heck].” And, in turn, the Eagles weren’t exactly great on third down either, converting just three of eight opportunities Saturday in winning the Division 1 Super Bowl, 21-14.
But this is what winners do — they win anyway.
Needing a play to keep the chains moving and their lead intact against Catholic Memorial at Gillette Stadium, Crowley made the play of the game. Facing third and 8 near midfield, Crowley was flushed out of the pocket after side-stepping a late-blitzing CM linebacker. With CM’s Owen McGowan in hot pursuit, Crowley sprinted to the sideline and threaded a perfect cross-body throw to Jackson Delaney, who had broken back to the middle of the field after running an out route to the first-down sticks.
“That was unreal,” said Prep offensive guard Cooper Smith.
Said St. Pierre: “I told him he ain’t fast, he knows. But he’s a winner. That was the play of the game, in my opinion, keeping that drive alive. That’s just moxie. You can’t teach that. That’s why he’s a three-year starter for us.”
Three plays after that 16-yard completion, Crowley lobbed a pass up the left seam, where Matt Duchemin got inside leverage on his defender and then juggled in the ball over the top of him for a 32-yard score. That made it a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead for St. John’s Prep, which won its second straight Division 1 title.
Crowley finished with 145 yards on 7-of-12 passing. That included a pretty throw to set up the Eagles’ second touchdown and 14-0 lead in the first, a simple smash concept that opened the deep left sideline for Duchemin, who was pushed out at the 1.
There were plenty of other factors that led to Prep’s win:
Commitment to power — John DiBiaso-coached teams, going back to his quarter-century run at Everett, are legendary for their application of Double Wing schemes when in need of a jolt. The formation’s hallmark foot-to-foot line splits virtually eliminate blitzing and make it difficult to identify the right ballcarrier.
St. John’s Prep used some of those splits throughout the game, from more traditional formations, commanding the point of attack seemingly with brute force. That included the game’s first score, a 14-yard James Guy zone toss in which he smartly cut back after seeing a backside linebacker over-pursue, opening a canyon to run through.
Stifling pass defense — Between sophomore Matt Mitchell and freshman Joenel Aguero, Prep’s secondary is going to be a problem for the next few years. Duchemin, the senior, said the secondary’s point of emphasis was to keep CM receivers on their outside hip all night, and two plays in particular helped key the win.
In the first half, Duchemin came up with the Eagles’ first interception by making a great read. Backpedaling before the snap and covering CM’s outside receiver, Duchemin broke toward the hash marks when he saw CM’s Barrett Pratt overthrow a slot receiver, and slid for a diving interception.
Then in the fourth, with CM driving in Eagles territory on fourth and 6, linebacker Tripp Clark saw McGowan settle in a spot just beyond the first-down marker, and wisely settled in front of him, dropping the would-be pick but forcing a turnover on downs regardless.
“We put in a new game plan and as DBs, we’ve got to play with swagger, so we just went out there and balled out,” Duchemin said.
Mega morale — It truly says something about St. Pierre’s skills as a motivator that, as overseer of a perennial top-five program, he could get the defending Division 1 state champs to fiercely buy into a David-vs.-Goliath mentality.
And we do mean fierce. As players soaked in their victory on the Gillette turf, the no-respect card was volleyballed around with gusto. Smith talked about “wanting to change the way the state thinks about us.” Crowley talked about embracing that “we were the underdogs.”
Their head coach was even more emphatic.
“We had a huge chip on our shoulder all year,” St. Pierre said. “We were the returning state title winners, and everyone’s talking about Central Catholic, Springfield Central, and CM. Like yeah, St. John’s Prep is top five, but nobody really talked like we were in title contention. That [made the kids mad], to be quite honest. I wasn’t too happy about it either.”
He’s not wrong. If St. Pierre had been within earshot of the Mansfield fans in Friday night’s Division 2 title game, he would have heard a smattering of “We want CM!” chants from the student section as the seconds counted down on the Hornets’ rout of Lincoln-Sudbury.
A few other observations from Saturday’s Super Bowl slate . . .
Is D1 ready for Central?
As expected, Springfield Central rolled to a second straight title in Division 3. What started with a throttling of Everett at Memorial Stadium ended with a dominant postseason run in which the Golden Eagles outscored the opposition, 181-53, and saw workhorse tailback Marcus Crawford average nearly 9 yards a carry throughout the playoffs, with 11 touchdowns.
The Golden Eagles aren’t going away any time soon.
Crawford, the year’s biggest breakout candidate, will be back. So is 6-foot-5-inch receiver Joe Griffin and defensive lineman Terry Lockett, a monolith in the middle who counts Syracuse and Michigan among his current suitors. Central’s line averaged more than 270 pounds across, and it’s conceivable it will be even bigger in 2020.
Coach Valdamar Brower and his “any time, anywhere” approach to scheduling has the Eagles on everyone’s radar following the Everett rout by taking CM and Central Catholic to the wire. And with an enrollment of more than 2,000 students, they’ll all but certainly be placed in Division 1 when the next realignment comes.
But that is a year away. So for now, the stalwarts of an otherwise quite competitive Division 3 landscape in Eastern Mass must groan, and sit back and enjoy watching freshman quarterback sensation William “Pop” Watson.
Watson was already hauling in FBS offers before he entered high school, and he backed up the hype in his very first game, throwing for more than 300 yards in that win over Everett. Saturday, he only completed six passes, but four of them went for touchdowns totaling 187 yards.
When was the last time a quarterback this good got this much praise early? The sky is the limit for Watson, whose father Bill Watson is now Central’s defensive coordinator after a successful run as head coach at Springfield Putnam.
“He was a freshman, then we played Everett and then he grew up really fast,” Brower said of Watson. “He’s been carrying himself like a senior since the seventh grade.”
With the MIAA at eight divisions for its statewide tournament, and only a limited amount of time to get in all the games at Gillette Stadium over two days, games must stay on time and they must be fast.
The byproduct of this was the shortening of the quarters from 12 to 10 minutes. The 12s were in play during the regular season and all games leading to Gillette. Outside of several injury delays, games mostly went quick, as there were no overtimes.
When you add it up, as Leicester coach Tim Griffiths noted after his Wolverines lost to Abington in the Division 7 final, it’s a significant amount of lost time to deal with.
“Ten-minute quarters, that’s eight less minutes. That’s a big difference from what we’re used to,” he said. “Regardless, [Abington] made plays and we didn’t.”
But the MIAA Football Committee, following national federation rules, is committed to 12-minute quarters going forward, and with the likelihood that there will be five divisions starting in 2021, it will be a moot point.
Brendan Hall can be reached at email@example.com.