MILFORD, Mass. – There are days when an offense can be creative, going with trick plays, receiver screens, deep throws trying to stretch the opposition and score in a hurry. In the playoffs, sometimes a more straightforward approach is required.
In the second half of Thursday night’s Div. 2 quarterfinal, Milford decided to take a decidedly old school plan of attack. Over two drives, the Hawks ran 33 plays, covered 173 yards, used up nearly half of the clock in third and fourth quarters, and scored a pair of touchdowns. Out of those 33 plays, only five were passes.
The ground game and a stout defense proved to be Milford’s best weapons, as the Hawks pulled out a 21-7 victory that moved them within one win of a first-ever trip to Gillette.
“I just told them, buckle up, we need to run the football,” said Milford coach Dale Olson about his message at halftime. “Three down box and sometimes it was a 3-2 or a 3-1, they were so concerned about our pass game. It’s so simple, I told the quarterback if it’s a limited box then run the football. It wasn’t Evan’s best night throwing the football but he ran the ball like a man tonight.”
Natick was in Milford territory in seven of its eight drives on the night, but many times that was the result of great starting field position. The 35-yard-line was the furthest that Natick started any of its first half drives, but the Milford defense kept finding ways to keep them out of the end zone.
On the first possession, a big tackle on the edge by Nicholas Araujo and Jayden Archeval forced third and long. Grant Scudo broke up the third down play to end the drive. The second drive ended after Keith Lee stuffed a run on second down and then Scudo dropped a third-down screen pass attempt for a loss.
The visitors finally broke through on their third possession, which they started at their own 45. After converting on third down, Colby LeBlanc was able to buy time in the pocket, eluding the rush and giving time for a receiver to come free. Mathew Pole found himself open in the seam and it turned into a 43-yard touchdown.
Milford moved the ball on its second possession, with Evan Cornelius (13-of-25, 129 yards) hitting Cameron Phillipss for a big conversion on third and eight. Cornelius (11 carrries, 61 yards) also converted third and short with a 10-yard keeper. After getting inside the Natick 30, things stalled. David Seiche nearly intercepted a pass and on fourth and four a screen pass to Damien Carter was stuffed for a loss.
Its first possession after Natick took the lead ended with a Seiche interception, but Milford’s defense forced a punt and the Hawks took over at their own 20. Scudo broke an 18-yard draw up the middle that put Milford into Natick territory and, on third and eight, Cornelius looked down the near sideline to Isaiah Pantalone (four catches, 54 yards), who was finally able to get just enough separation to haul in a 34-yard touchdown and tie the game with 2:20 before halftime.
Momentum seemed to be with the home side, especially when Nizayah Montas fumbled near midfield and Scudo recovered. A big completion over the middle to Jayden Agnew (five catches, 45 yards) gained 17 and got the Hawks to the 26. They managed to spike the ball with one tick remaining on the clock, but Araujo’s 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
Seiche had a big kickoff return to start the third quarter, putting Natick at the 46, but on third down and short Alex McColl was able to stop Montas for no gain and force a punt. The ball was downed at the nine and Milford went to work behind its big offensive line.
Scudo, Cornelius, and Tyler Lane were finding running room and grinding out yards and first downs. An 11-yard keeper got the Hawks out to the 35 and then Lane went up the gut for 11 more. On third and one from the Natick 35, Lane burst through the line and then bounced it out to the left, finally being dragged down after a 23-yard gain. Three plays later, he was able to cash in from the one to put the hosts ahead for good.
Milford’s pass defense continued to be excellent with Archeval and Matt Girard both breaking up passes to force another punt. This time, the Hawks started at their own 18 but 18 plays and nearly 9-1/2 minutes later they were back in the end zone.
Olson said, “I said to them we need a championship drive right now and we’re going to run the football right down their throats and, if we can do that, we’re going to go play for the right to go to Gillette.”
Cornelius started the drive with a 13-yard completion to Nick Schuler and he kept the chains moving with a five-yard pass to Pantalone for a first down at the Natick 43. Lane followed that with a 17-yard carry. Scudo, Cornelius, and Lane all got the ball, grinding down to the goal line and it was Lane (29 carries, 157 yards) who would punch it in from a yard out, making it 21-7 with just 4:27 to play.
“Tyler’s a dude,” Olson said. “I don’t want to give him the ball that much because he’s a great linebacker and early in the season we gave it to him 29 times in one game and the first two days after that game he was in an ice bath. He’s not the fastest kid in the world, but man he runs hard.” When told Lane’s stats for the game, Olson said with a smile, “That’s a great night.”
Milford (8-2) will face a rematch with a league foe in next week’s semifinal at a location to be determined. The Hawks will face either No. 3 King Philip, which beat Milford 17-14 on a last second field goal, or No. 6 Mansfield, which Milford beat 27-24 in overtime, for the right to play in the D2 Super Bowl.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this program in 20 months where it’s gone and it’s been the kids,” Olson explained. “They bought into the system and they’re playing well.”