In the final regular season game, with their backs against the wall and a chance to share the Davenport division on the line, the defense finally delivered.
With just over a minute to go, Canton found itself inside the red zone down by four. On second and eight from the 18, the Bulldogs went for the go-ahead score. Junior quarterback Johnny Hagan was forced to throw under pressure, and junior Gersom Rivera waited in the end zone with open arms, but North Attleboro senior Omar Jasseh made a terrific leaping interception to rob Canton of a touchdown, securing a 14-10 win for the Rocketeers.
“We’ve been all waiting all year [for that],” said North Attleboro head coach Don Johnson. “We really haven’t gotten a big play on defense all year. We’ve been hanging in and hanging in, and relying on our offense to chew up the clock. Tonight we needed our defense to step up and we finally got that big play.
“I was thinking it should have happened on three different plays, it felt like we could have picked it off. I think our kids were playing a little tentative and didn’t want to get burned deep when they probably could have made a play on the ball.”
Canton started its drive at the own 48 with 3:28 left in the game. After an incompletion and a three-yard rush, the Bulldogs quickly faced a third and seven scenario.
Hagan hit Ryan Lentol on a hitch route for eight yards to move the sticks, Rivera (seven carries, 35 yards) picked up six yards on the ground, and two plays later Hagan linked up with Jace Emma for 15-yards to get to the North 20-yard line. Two plays later, Jasseh made the play in the end zone to deny the Bulldogs the Davenport title outright.
“Credit to North, the pass rush started to get to us a bit,” said Canton head coach Dave Bohane. “Johnny is a competitor, he tried to win the game, and he took a shot. North has good coaches, and they brought some kids, and I think they made Johnny get rid of the ball differently than he normally would. But I’m proud of my guys, they battled right to the wire as usual.
“We’ve come a long way. To be in a game of this magnitude, and still have some meaningful games to look forward to, that’s good for the program. I think we have a little rivalry with North Attleboro now. To win the Hockomock League is an accomplishment, and this was a pretty good game tonight. So I think this puts us in a good position heading into the playoffs.”
It was an exciting end to a second half that was dominated by both defenses. Before its final drive of the game, Canton’s first three chances of the second half all resulted in punts. The Bulldogs moved the ball 37 yards on their second drive, advancing into North territory but back-to-back negative plays forced a punt.
North Attleboro’s offense didn’t fare much better, but it was enough. The Rocketeers had a little success on their first drive of the second half, but a sack from Brendan Albert put North in a hole, and Canton forced a turnover on downs at midfield.
After getting the ball back, the Rocketeers hit the home run play they were looking for, but only after converting a fourth down. On 3rd and 16th, the Rocketeers spread things out but went with a QB draw and Nick Raneri (15 carries, 74 yards) sprinted up the middle for 15 yards. At their own 44, North went for it, and Raneri pounded his way for two yards and a first down.
On the next play, senior Brendan McHugh (12 carries, 106 yards) came across from the right side for a sweep but instead of going all the way across, the senior cut back up a gap on the right side and sprinted for a 54-yard touchdown to put North Attleboro up 14-10 with 54 seconds to go in the third quarter.
It was the only scoring play of the second half.
“We decided to try and spread them out a bit with our formation,” Johnson said of changes in the second half. “We were running a lot of double tight early, and we had success on the first drive of the game, but they have a hell of a defense and shut us down. At halftime, we thought we could loosen them up with the formation, and I think that helped free up McHugh a little.”
The Rocketeers had an ideal start to the contest. Canton’s first drive picked up 33 yards but stalled and was forced to punt. North’s offense went right to work, starting at its own 10-yard line.
North needed just five plays to go almost the entire length of the field. Raneri ran for 10 yards, McHugh went off for 14 yards, Raneri scrambled to find Ryan Gaumond for 42 yards and then went back to the ground for 20 more yards himself.
On first and goal, Raneri kept it himself and went in from four yards out for a 7-0 lead with 5:55 to go in the first.
“McHugh really has it all, he’s fast and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his toughness,” Bohane said. “He runs hard and he’s a hard kid to bring down, especially with his speed. One of our coaches said he’s the best back in the league and at times he certainly looked like it. He’s good and Raneri is a handful, and they made some really nice play calls with him at the right time.”
The Bulldogs finally got things going offensively right at the end of the first quarter. Hagan ran for seven yards and hit Emma for a third down conversion. On the final play of the opening quarter, Hagan hit Kyle Fitzgerald (96 all purpose yards) up the seam for a 39-yard pass.
On the first play of the second quarter, Hagan pitched it to Rivera on the right side and the junior scampered in to make it 7-7.
Canton’s defense got a stop to get the ball back and used eight plays to move into North territory, gaining 43 yards. But a holding play hurt the drive and the Bulldogs settled for a 34-yard field goal from junior Owen Lehane, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime.
The win gives North Attleboro a share of the 2018 Davenport division title, marking the fourth straight year that the Rocketeers have won a league title. It’s the first time in program history that North has won four straight.
“It was big for us to still have a chance at the title,” Johnson said after losing to Stoughton last week. “This is our fourth consecutive title for us, no North Attleboro team has ever won four in a row. The loss last week was also our first loss in the league since 2014, so the kids were feeling down about that too. But they still had an opportunity in front of them to do what no other senior group has done, so that was a real motivator.
“[Canton] is a hell of a football team. We’re sharing the title with them, and they deserve that share of it. They have a great football team over there, and the scary thing is they are all juniors, but I’ll worry about that next year.”
“As high as we were for this game, we can kind of breath a little bit and focus on the playoffs,” Bohane said. “We’re really excited to be in the playoffs and I honestly can’t wait to find out who we’re playing and get to work. We wanted to win this game badly but we wanted to play competitive and come out healthy. And I think we’re in a good position moving forward.”
North Attleboro football (4-1 Hockomock, 5-2 overall) likely earns a home game in the D3 South playoffs with the victory, though final seeds aren’t announced until late in the weekend. The Rocketeers will also likely return to Community Field for the first round playoff game. Canton (4-1, 6-1) will also likely host a game in Division 5 South.