In the first round of the Division 1 South tournament, the Panthers’ defense took center stage.
#4 Franklin’s defense prevented #5 Brockton from getting in the end zone, adjusted to limit the Boxers’ run game, came away with three interceptions and anchored the Panthers to a 26-3 win.
After Brockton’s offense combined for 97 yards and three points on its first two drives of the game, the Panthers’ defense limited the Boxers to just 66 yards the rest of the way. Of Brockton’s final seven drives, three ended with interceptions, one with a safety, and two turnover on downs.
“Our defense has been pretty good all year in all of our wins,” said Franklin head coach Eian Bain. “It’s been pretty solid all year and in the second half, they won us that game. They put the nail in the coffin and sealed it for us.
“I love coaching and all that but the kids do all the work. From day one, they bought in. We’ve taken our bumps and we’ve grinded along the way but these guys earned everything they’ve gotten so far. I think we have great athletes but these guys have everything in their power to develop as people and as football players. That’s really shown this year.”
Brockton’s offense had its lone success of the first two drives of the game. After a good return, the Boxers offense quickly marched 47 yards — all on the ground — into the Franklin red zone on the first drive of the game. But the visitors couldn’t convert as Franklin’s Nolan McLaney and Austin Jordan combined for a tackle for loss on second down, and Brockton fumbled on third, meaning they had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Carlens Jean.
It took Franklin just over two minutes to respond, finding the end zone in just six plays on its first drive of the game. Junior quarterback Nick Gordon (11/16, 178 yards, two touchdowns) converted a third down by finding junior Jake Davis up the seam for a 36-yard gain – the only stopping him from going the distance was his own momentum.
After two plays without a gain, Franklin converted another third down, this time Gordon finding a streaking Jack Nally up the middle for a 32-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 2:08 left in the first quarter.
The Boxers nearly struck back with an immediate response of their own. Brockton junior running back Ahmik Watterson broke free for a 50-yard scamper to get inside the Franklin 10-yard line. Another run from Watterson put the ball at the 1-yard line. Franklin’s defense came up with a key stop and Brockton was whistled for a dead fall foul, pushing them back to the 15-yard line.
Two plays later, Jean’s 25-yard field goal attempt was just wide left and Franklin’s offense took over.
“They had a pretty cool set early where they where they were unbalanced one way with a power-I going the opposite,” Bain said of Brockton’s early running success. “You have to adjust the front while also maintain some integrity on the back and be gap sound. Once we settled down we felt OK.”
The Panthers marched up field, going 74 yards to get into scoring territory at the Brockton 6-yard line. The drive was highlighted by a 27-yard catch from Sean Leonard and a terrific leaping 30-yard catch from Ryan Driscoll on third down. But Brockton’s defense was up to the task, not letting Franklin get any closer.
The Panthers settled for a 23-yard field goal from Parker Chevrant and a 10-7 advantage with 6:55 to play in the second quarter.
Although Brockton’s defense just had a big stop to get some momentum, Franklin’s defense stole it right back. On the third play of the ensuing drive, Brockton quarterback Michael Norman was intercepted by Driscoll near midfield and he returned it all the way into the red zone at the 18-yard line.
Four plays later, on fourth and 2 from the 10-yard line, Bain elected to go for it and Gordon linked up with Leonard, who just got his feet down, in the end zone for a 17-3 advantage with 4:29 left in the first half.
“Any game you can really boil it down to about a half dozen moments and for us, that stretch was certainly one of them,” Bain said. “We’ve put a lot of stock in our kids and we really trust them. We went up to the line with a dummy call, we weren’t going to run a play but Leonard is a three-year guy, Gordon has stepped in the clutch all year so we let them do their thing.”
Brockton started its drive inside its own 20-yard line and junior linebacker Evan Wertz made a big tackle on third down to force the Boxers to punt. But the snap sailed high on the punter, and by the time he was able to pick it up he stepped out of bounds in the back of the end zone while under pressure from McLaney, resulting in a safety and a 19-3 lead for the Panthers.
Franklin had a chance to add onto that lead before half, getting to the Brockton 30-yard line on the ensuing drive but a fumble ended the drive.
Brockton moved 30 yards to get into Franklin territory in the final minute of the first half but Owen Palmieri came away with an interception to send the teams into the locker rooms for half.
“For us, our strength is our back end, our strength is our athletes,” Bain said. “I think we have very good linemen but we’re always going to be outsized, that just the way it is here. But we’re fast and athletic, so we if we can get a team to play to our strengths, we’re in a better spot. We wanted to make them throw it some and get out of their comfort zone.”
The second half featured a battle of ground games trying to solve two strong defensive fronts. Brockton had 20 plays in the second half with a total of 29 yards.
Franklin’s offense didn’t fare much better as it tried to get its ground game going and keep the ball away from the Boxers. The Panthers offense had 30 plays for a total of 57 yards.
“We like we had some opportunities to run, that was what they were giving us,” Bain said of keeping the ball on the ground for the majority of plays in the second half. “We didn’t want to give them a short field or anything. They have the athletes to get back in the game in one strike. I don’t want to say we were conservative, we truly believe they were the right play calls but hopefully we can have some more success on the ground next week.
The big play of the second half came when Franklin’s defense once again thwarted the Boxers trying to throw the ball. Midway through the fourth quarter, a sack from senior Adam McMorrow forced the Boxers into a 3rd and 15 scenario inside their own 20 yard line.
Norman tried to link up with a receiver down field but McLaney stepped in front for the interception. The senior returned it 26 yards to the 1-yard line, setting the Panther offense up.
After being stuffed on the first two tries on QB sneaks, Gordon took the next snap in shotgun and pushed his way up the middle for a 26-3 lead with 5:39 to play.
Franklin football (6-2) advances to the D1 South Semifinal and will take on top-seeded Xaverian (6-1) on Friday night at 7:00 in Westwood. The Hawks beat BC High 17-0 in the opening round.