In the biggest game of the year to date, however, it was the Rocketeers’ defense that received rave reviews after containing a dangerous Stoughton offense — all the way to the final play of the game — to the tune of a 14-6 victory, clinching at least a share of the Davenport division title in the process.
The North Attleboro defense forced four straight punts to start the game, ended a pair of Stoughton drives on downs inside their own territory, created back-to-back turnovers in the fourth quarter, and denied the visitors a chance at tying the game as time expired.
“We were worried because it’s a physical matchup against those guys with their big backs and all of our little guys coming up trying to tackle them,” said North Attleboro head coach Don Johnson. “I think we kept them off balance enough. We learned last year one guy isn’t going to bring down their backs so we worked all week on getting guys to the football, and we have some speed on defense so that helps.
“It felt like the whole second half we kept giving them chances, we could never get that third score. We felt like if we could get that third score we could relax a little but we never got it, we never finished it on offense but the defense kept stepping up and making plays.”
It marked a quick one-season turnaround for the program, which finished under .500 for the first time in over 25 years during the 2019 season. Now, the Rocketeers are division champions for the fifth time in the past six years.
“These kids were really motivated throughout the whole offseason, they wanted to get North Attleboro back to where it should be,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them, they’ve done everything we’ve asked of them for the past 15, 16 months now and it’s been awesome, it’s a great group of kids.”
Stoughton’s defense, down three starters to injury including top pass-rusher Christian Georges, put in a solid shift as well as the Black Knights continued to make big stops in the second half to give themselves a chance. The visitors made things interesting by scoring on the first play of the fourth quarter as senior quarterback John Burke read the blitz and got the pass out quickly, hitting an open Christian Ais. Ais turned on the jets and sprinted up the left sideline for a 43-yard score and Stoughton trailed by just one possession, 14-6.
North nearly answered right away but couldn’t quite finish off the drive. The Rocketeers used all of their weapons on the drive to march down the field, as junior quarterback Tyler DeMattio (24 carries, 150 yards) started with a 24-yard run, Tommy Whalen followed with a 10-yard carry, and Jacob Silva moved the sticks for the third straight play with a 16-yard rush.
DeMattio ran for 11 yards later in the drive to get into the red zone but on 4th and 5, Stoughton’s Christopher Ais came up with a sack and the Knights took over on downs.
But just three plays into the ensuing drive, North Attleboro got the ball back as junior Tyler Bannon ripped the ball free from the ball carrier and recovered the fumble himself, setting the Rocketeers up with the ball at the Stoughton 30.
The Black Knights once again came up with a red zone stop to stay in the contest. Christian Ais had a tackle for a loss on second down, and on fourth and 2 from the 8-yard line, Stoughton’s Davin Swierzewski met DeMattio up the middle to deny him the first down with 3:24 to play.
A 20-yard rush from Burke plus a personal foul followed by an 11-yard reception from Jake Queeney moved Stoughton over midfield. But Stoughton’s drive came to another screeching halt as Bannon came flying in and jarred the ball free and the ref ruled it was a fumble and not an incomplete pass, allowing sophomore Greg Berthiaume to slide into the loose ball before it went out of bounds, seemingly ending Stoughton’s chance at a comeback with just 1:17 to go.
Stoughton used its two timeouts on first and third down, denying the Rocketeers a first down and making the hosts punt with just seconds to go. A high snap forced punter Max Bumpus to chase the ball down, falling on it at his own 20-yard line for a turnover on downs, giving Stoughton one last chance.
Burke’s first pass was knocked down as Christian Ais was triple covered in the end zone, and his second toss was just out of the end zone as he tried to hit Queeney in the corner.
“We had a chance at the end,” said Stoughton head coach Greg Burke. “I was happy we didn’t let them score in the second half and we got one, but we can’t give up the two scores. They certainly deserved at least one [score] in the first half, they were pushing us around and I thought we’d do a little better upfront so hats off to them. Their quarterback is tough, every time you think you got him he just squirms awayWe lost the ball a couple of times, and you can’t do that in games like this.
“It’s a consolation but the kids played hard, we didn’t get blown out. Our kids are never going to quit, no matter what, no matter who we play so I’m happy about that.”
North Attleboro orchestrated back-to-back scoring drives on its second and third chances of the game. After going three-and-out to start the game, the Rocketeers took advantage of good field position both times.
On the first drive, the Big Red needed seven plays to cover 45 yards before finding the end zone. Silva had a 15-yard carry to set the tone to start the drive and then hauled in a 3-yard catch inside the 5-yard line to move the chains. DeMattio kept it himself from a yard out to give North a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
North’s next drive started in the first quarter and ended in the end zone with 8:29 left to play in the second quarter. Again starting in Stoughton territory, North marched 41 yards on 10 plays, twice converting on fourth down, to double its lead.
The Rocketeers went to Silva to covert 4th and 1 early in the drive, and then DeMattio kept it himself for 10 yards on 4th and 2. North kept going with DeMattio up the middle and two plays later, he kept it for a 5-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
“With their speed, they were doing a good job of shutting down the edge on us early so it was leaving a little bit of a seam up inside,” Johnson said. “He’s the safest way to run off tackle, you don’t have to risk a handoff or anything. So that’s why it ended up being him more than some of the other running backs.
“[Tyler’s] the guy you want in your fox hole. There’s no stop to him, he’s just constantly going hard in everything that he does. He’s pound-for-pound the toughest kid that I’ve seen in a long time.”
After four punts to open the game, Stoughton finally got something going on offense late in the first half. Jonah Ly sprinted for 12 yards on first down, Christian Ais followed with a 13-yard carry, and Christopher Ais went up the middle to convert third and short. The Black Knights moved inside the red zone but back-to-back incompletions, including one near the pylon in the front of the end zone, stopped the drive.
Stoughton’s defense forced a turnover on downs on North’s first drive of the second half (10 plays, 51 yards) and the Black Knights carried some momentum to offense. Christian Ais scampered his way for a 41-yard carry to start the drive but three plays later, Burke’s pass to Christian Ais was spotted a yard short on fourth down.
“They have great speed, they were able to use that,” Burke said. “We had some success going right at them but we didn’t continue with it, but shoulda, coulda, woulda, and we just didn’t do enough. We had some chances but came up short on some fourth downs. They did a good job using their speed, brought an extra guy in on us. I thought we’d hit a few more passes but we didn’t. And we had turnovers, you can’t do that.”
North Attleboro (4-0) can clinch the Davenport title outright when it travels to Foxboro on Friday for a 5:30 kickoff. Stoughton (3-1) will compete in crossover action when it hosts Milford (3-1) on Saturday at 11:00 AM.