FRANKLIN, Mass. – An early turnover gave Franklin the ball in Mansfield territory and the Panthers gained a couple of first downs before kicking a field goal to grab the lead. Then the Hornets took control with their defense, not allowing the Panthers another first down until inside five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Using a three down linemen look, Mansfield consistently got into the backfield without needing to blitz and, with a little assist from Mother Nature, disrupted Franklin’s typically potent passing attack on Friday night at Pisini Stadium. The Hornets scored 26 straight points to take control and rolled to a 39-9 victory that keeps them unbeaten in league play and alone atop the division standings.
“We’ve got a very, very good defense,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding. “They’re as athletic a team as we’re going to play but fortunately we’re pretty loaded in the secondary, but it’s a combination of us playing great ‘D’ and terrible weather conditions for them.
“We can run to the ball, we can cover, we can pressure, you throw in the conditions on top of that and it’s going to be hard for anyone to move the ball against us.”
The Panthers came in knowing that they still had a chance at possibly sharing the league title and the energy on the sideline was palpable. It got even louder when Jack Nally picked off Jack Moussette’s third-down pass on the opening series of the game and gave Franklin the ball at the Mansfield 37.
A 15-yard run by Owen Palmieri got the offense going and then a pair of completions from Thomas Gasbarro (18-30, 125 yards) to Jake Davis (seven catches, 92 yards) got Franklin down to the seven-yard-line. After going nowhere on three plays, Franklin got on the board with a 24-yard Parker Cheuvront kick.
It would be Franklin’s only possession of the half with the wind at its back.
Mansfield’s running attack was better suited for the blustery conditions and the Hornets used Michael DeBolt, Vinnie Holmes, Cincere Gill, and Anthony Comer on the opening drive to get into Franklin territory. A personal foul against the Panthers got the ball as far as the 18, but the Hornets went backwards and had to settle for a 41-yard kick by DeBolt to tie the game early in the second quarter.
The teams traded punts and Mansfield made its field position advantage pay off. Starting at its own 49, Mansfield would use five plays to grab the lead for good. Nick Marciano lined up at quarterback on the drive to give a different look and, on third and 12, he took a direct snap and found a seam on the left side of the line, racing 35 yards for the go-ahead score.
Marciano would also contribute to the game’s turning point. He hustled to down a Gill punt, pinning Franklin back at its own one. The snap flew over the head of Gasbarro and out of the back of the end zone for a safety and a 12-3 Mansfield lead.
After the kick-off, the Hornets started again in great position, at the Franklin 36. Moussette had a pair of completions to Danny Rapoza and one to Joe Cappalletti to get down to the 23. DeBolt took a sweep 10 more yards and, after a spike to stop the clock, Moussette hit Gill in the front corner of the end zone for a 13-yard strike.
Redding said, “It went to a two-score game and then the throw to Cincere when we weren’t even supposed to throw to, Jack saw the one-on-one and took advantage of it. We did a lot of good things keeping them at a healthy distance to keep the lead.”
Mansfield added to its lead in the third quarter, again making good starting field position pay off. The Hornets needed only four plays to score from the Franklin 29, with Holmes (nine carries, 55 yards) finding a hole on the left side and bursting through for a 21-yard touchdown run.
The Franklin passing attack was finding it hard to get going, mostly due to the pressure put on Gasbarro by TJ Guy, Chris Graham, and the Hornets’ defensive line. Mansfield was getting into the backfield and not giving the Panthers time to look downfield, while being able to keep plenty back in coverage in case the ball did get out.
“I don’t think he ever felt comfortable,” Redding explained. “Even when we didn’t bring people, our three guys were getting enough pressure to make him throw a little early. We funneled in six guys in those three spots to stay fresh.”
Franklin coach Eian Bain said, “We had planned to try and get the ball out quick, but it was kind of a tough spot going into the wind. We tried to run the football. I think we only had the first possession and didn’t have the ball with the wind until the fourth quarter.”
A glimmer of hope came with three minutes left in the third. Gasbarro hooked up with Davis on a 41-yard completion, the receiver juggling it before hauling it in and getting to the Mansfield 35. The same combo connected again a few plays later for a 20-yard touchdown.
Momentum was fleeting. Holmes burst through the line to block the extra point and then Gill took the ensuing kick-off 84 yards right up the middle of the field for a back-breaking touchdown.
“We still had our chances,” Bain said, “but we just couldn’t get out of our end of the field tonight and I think that was what was pretty frustrating.”
Ethan Thevenot tacked on a late touchdown for the Hornets with a 65-yard run to extend the final margin.
The Hornets were coming off a big win against King Philip last week, but Redding wasn’t afraid of a letdown from his team. He said, “There was no way we could have a letdown. Our guys knew how good Franklin was, so I think it was maybe best game we could’ve had after KP because we knew they were next in line and we had to bring our ‘A’ game.”
Mansfield (4-1, 3-0) will look to solidify its position atop the Kelley-Rex division and clinch at least a share of back-to-back league crowns when it hosts Oliver Ames on Friday. Franklin (3-2, 1-2) will try to solidify its position in the Div. 1 South bracket when it travels to Attleboro next Saturday.