MANSFIELD, Mass. – When the offense is struggling to produce points, it is critical to take advantage of field position, opponent’s mistakes, and big plays by the defense. On Friday night at Alumni Field, Mansfield’s offense managed to capitalize on all of those in the second half.
The Hornets had three possessions start in Taunton territory after halftime and they were able to find the end zone on all three, turning a 3-0 lead into a 24-8 victory. Sophomore Trevor Foley continued his impressive breakout season with a pair of touchdown receptions and had an interception on the other side of the ball as well.
“You’re in at 3-0 but they’re one play away from going up 7-3 and the game flips on its head,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding. “So, we said at halftime next score we’re up 10-0 with a two-score lead or they’re up and we’re scrambling from behind. I think everybody took a deep breath when we got it to 10 and we continued to play really good defense to get it to 17.”
For the third league game in a row, Taunton coach Brad Sidwell was rueing missed opportunities that cost the Tigers a chance at picking up a marquee win over one of the league’s perennial powers.
“We came out of halftime thinking at 3-0 we’re hanging in there and then it just blew up on us,” he said. “That was just a series of about 10 plays that were real tough. I did think our guys fought hard but that sequence of plays at the start of the second half got us.”
Mansfield’s offense looked strong out of the gates, as it marched into Taunton territory on its first possession behind the running of Rocco Scarpellini (18 carries, 82 yards), but the Hornets failed to get three yards on two plays and the drive stalled at the 35. Taunton immediately looked deep on its first two plays, but Jacob Leonard’s passes were just out of reach and Pedro Cruz ended the possession with a sack.
After Mansfield went three-and-out, Taunton got the game’s first big play when Leonard ( 8-of-17, 115 yards) found Jose Touron down the sideline for 32 yards to the Mansfield 45. The Tigers got only a yard further and were forced to punt.
Both defenses were playing well. John Castillo and Ryan MacDougall combined to stuff Scarpellini for a loss to start another Mansfield three-and-out and sacks by James Fichera and Jephte Jean made sure Taunton went nowhere.
The Hornets would put together one scoring drive in the opening half. Taking over at the 28, Mansfield marched down to the red zone. Fichera had an 11-yard rush and then a 25-yard reception on a wheel route to get the Hornets to the Taunton 30. On fourth and three, Conner Zukowski (7-of-11, 75 yards) hit Foley for six yards and a first down to the 17.
Taunton came through with a massive defensive stand. Nathan Keenan stepped up quickly to stop Fichera for no gain on first down, Faisal Mass stuffed Scarpellini for a loss of a yard. MacDougall chased down Zukowski after a short gain on third down and the Hornets had to settle for a 32-yard James Gilleran field goal and a 3-0 lead at the break.
“First half we just never got into a flow,” Redding admitted. “They were playing good defense. Right now, we’ve just got to find a way to convert third or fourth and short. That right now is our Achille’s heel. We’re giving up possessions when it’s third and three and we can’t do that in big games.”
The turning point of the game would happen on Taunton’s possession to start the third quarter. Keenan slipped on the return and the Tigers started at their own seven. Jean came through the line and stuffed a run for a loss of three. Two completions later, the Tigers would try to punt from the 16, but the snap was over the head of Tyler Wynn, who scooped the ball in his own end zone and tried to make a break for it. He was tackled two yards short of the line of scrimmage.
On third and seven, Zukowski fooled the defense with a play action pass to a wide open Foley in the back corner of the end zone. The 11-yard score put the Hornets up by two possessions.
“It’s something we’ve been fighting against since I got here, just the blowing up of plays and keep surmounting again and again and again and it just gets behind you too much,” Sidwell said.
Foley made a great play to end Taunton’s next possession, breaking late on a deep throw over the middle and out-jumping the receiver to pull in the pick. Taunton’s defense held, but again a turnover ended any chance of the Tigers putting together a drive. On the first play, Mark DeGirolamo sniffed out a screen pass and pulled in an interception.
A penalty forced Mansfield back to the Taunton 42, but nine players later the Hornets were back in the end zone. CJ Bell picked up a key fourth down with a toss to the right and Scarpellini would push the ball over the goal line from 11 yards out with a lot of help from his offensive line.
Taunton’s offense continued to find things difficult. Jared Fraone made a nice tackle on Trent Santos on the outside and Cruz came flying through for his second sack of the night to quickly end another possession.
Mansfield took back over at the Tigers 40 and put the game away. Scarpellini had an 18-yard rush and Dana Johnson was able to recover a botched hand-off to keep the drive alive at the Taunton 19. On the next play, Zukowski found Foley for the score and a 24-0 lead.
The Tigers did get one drive to go their way and showed why Redding had been nervous about his team only leading by three at the break. Leonard went deep down the sideline to Santos, who pulled in a one-handed grab for 41 yards into Mansfield territory. A pass interference call on the next play got the Tigers to the 13. On fourth down. Leonard was able to hit Touron for the touchdown and Santos got to the corner to punch in the conversion.
Sidwell said, “Our defense played great. We were bad on offense. We had a few chances in the first half but they covered us well and we’ve got to find a way to get those balls completed.”
Redding quickly looked ahead to next week’s showdown with King Philip. He said, “If we win it gets us a home game, if we lose we’re going on the road as a lower seed, so I told these guys playoffs start next Friday at KP. We’re playing for positioning and to make a run.”
Mansfield (5-2) will travel to Macktaz Field next week to face King Philip, which is currently tied for the division lead. Taunton (4-3) try for its first league win of the season when it hosts Attleboro.