FRANKLIN, Mass. – Franklin has made a name for itself this season with a high-powered offense that is capable of a big play at any time, but in Friday’s Div. 1 South quarterfinal at Pisini Stadium the Panthers showed that there is another side to their game as well.
The Franklin defense only allowed Attleboro to cross midfield once all night, allowing the Panthers to grind out a 14-0 victory on a pair of second half touchdowns and book a second straight appearance in the sectional semifinal.
“What I told the kids at halftime is this is going to be a character test,” said Franklin coach Eian Bain. “We’re going to define out character right here and you have to win these types of games this time of year.”
He added, “We needed to call a better game and get our guys in better positions, but I think once we went into the half we felt more comfortable with what they were in so we felt better about the calls we were making and had a better idea of how to attack them.”
The Panthers got the ball to start the second half and they put in their best drive of the game to score what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Franklin marched 66 yards on 13 plays, showing off a balance between the ground game with Owen Palmieri (14 carries, 65 yards) and its typically potent passing game.
It was a methodical drive. Until the Panthers got inside the red zone, no play went for more than 11 yards and they converted four third downs. Thomas Gasbarro (20-of-31, 187 yards) hit four different receivers on the possession, including Palmieri, who finished with more than 100 yards of total offense, Jake Davis (eight catches, 82 yards), and Jack Nally.
It was Nally (five catches, 48 yards) who made the big play, grabbing a pass on the near sideline and shaking the grasp of an Attleboro tackler to get into the end zone from 16 yards out.
“I think we were really good on third down in the second half and in the first half a couple times we got bogged down on the other end of the field,” Bain explained. “Part of that was trying to get us in better third down situations so it wasn’t third and eight all game and maybe more third and fours and fives.”
Attleboro quarterback Jason Weir was injured while playing defensive back on that drive, possibly after nearly sacking Gasbarro on the play preceding the touchdown, and sophomore Blake Garzaro stepped in to replace him.
Garzaro was one of several underclassmen that got significant playing time due to injuries. With regular starters like Michael Strachan, Isaac Gudiel, and Justin Daniels out, Kaiden Murray (13 carries, 59 yards), Adam Pearlstein, Freddy Wheaton, and Alvin Harrison all had the chance to take on bigger roles and Attleboro coach Mike Strachan was pleased with what he saw from the younger guys.
“I can’t be prouder,” he said. “We had five sophomores out there and went toe-to-toe for three quarters and a little more tonight. I thought we played physical, we didn’t quit, and they’ve got athletes everywhere but I thought we contained them. It’s something to build off for our young kids for sure.”
Franklin moved the ball well on its second possession of the half as well, but Gasbarro was sacked at the Attleboro 24 to end the third quarter and Qualeem Charles put pressure on the quarterback to force an incompletion on third down. Kicker Parker Cheuvront, who had missed from 27 yards in the first quarter, had his kick blocked and it remained a one-score game.
Again it was the Panthers defense that came through to get the ball right back. Austin Jordan sacked Garzaro for a 10-yard loss and on third down they were able top wrap Murray up on a 14-yard gain that came up four yards short of the marker.
“We knew if we have points, the way our defense has been playing we could do a lot of great things,” Bain said. “We just needed to get over the hump and get on the board. It also put more pressure on them because they were happy to grind the tempo down. “
Starting at midfield, Franklin put together a drive to seal the victory. Palmieri and Gasbarro each rushed for five yards for a first down and then Nally followed with back-to-back six yard sweeps for another. A seven-yard draw to Nally with 10 yards tacked on because of a personal foul got the Panthers to the Attleboro 11.
Charles came through with a big stop on Palmieri for a four-yard loss. Two penalties and a loss of yards on a Gasbarro scramble pushed Franklin back to the 17 for fourth and 16. Gasbarro tried to get to the marker with his legs and appeared to have the first down only for a holding call to bring the play back to the 23.
Again Franklin went for it and this time found the end zone. Gasbarro picked out Davis at the two-yard-line and the senior receiver twisted and stretched his way to pay dirt.
Davis then wrapped up the win with two minutes remaining when he made an acrobatic, juggling interception.
“We didn’t know what they were going to come out in because they could’ve gone a lot of different ways today,” Bain said of the Bombardiers. “I thought they had a great game plan on both sides of the ball and really gave us a hard time tonight.”
Franklin (6-2) advances to the sectional semifinal for the second straight season and will host Brockton in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal that the Panthers won. Attleboro (3-5) will wait for the identity of its next opponent.