FRANKLIN, Mass. – Graduation hit both teams’ offense hard. One team lost its all-star, dual-threat quarterback, and the other lost the bulk of its starting receivers, but on Thursday night at Pisini Field both Franklin and Milford showed that they have plenty of firepower remaining.
The two teams combined for 61 points, including 40 in the second half alone, and more than 600 yards through the air. In the end, the Panthers had just enough to hold off the Hawks and pull out a 34-27 victory in the season opener for both programs.
Franklin quarterback Thomas Gasbarro completed 70 percent of his passes (21-of-30) and threw for 293 yard and three touchdowns, while Milford senior Colby Pires completed 57 percent of his throws (12-of-21) for 325 yards and three scores of his own.
It didn’t take the hosts long to get into sync. On its first possession, starting at the Milford 46, Gasbarro hit Jack Nally for an eight-yard completion and then on the second play from scrimmage hit Jake Davis in stride down the far sideline. The senior receiver dove from several yards out and just snuck inside the pylon for a 7-0 lead.
“They’ve got a great connection,” Franklin coach Eian Bain said of Gasbarro and Davis. “Jake is such a terrific athlete and I think that shows in lacrosse and football. Tommy is just a grinder. I don’t think I’ve seen a tougher performance out of a QB. Milford was real creative with their pressures and their scheme defensively. Tommy stood in and he was getting hit on some of those throws.”
Milford’s defense came through with a big stand on Franklin’s next possession. Luke Rosa sacked Gasbarro on fourth and one from the Hawks 29. Milford got the ball and took only five plays to go downfield and tie it. Pires connected with Carter Scudo (four catches for 151 yards) on a 39-yard completion to get to the Franklin 15 and Rosa (16 carries, 87 yards) punched it from there.
On its first drive of the second quarter, Franklin regained the advantage. Gasbarro spread the ball around on the possession, hitting Ben Greco, Owen Palmieri, and Davis. It was Nally that got into the end zone, as Gasbarro threaded the needle on a pass to the front stick, getting the ball just over the corner to make it 14-7.
The Franklin defense held onto the lead with a pair of red zone stops. First, the Panthers were able to cut Pires a yard short on fourth and 11 from the 21 and then, following a punt that gave Milford the ball back in great field position, the Hawks got as close as the six only for Austin Jordan to end the half with a sack of Pires.
Franklin nearly extended its lead on the first drive of the third quarter, but Maxwell Martin made a great play to rip the ball out of the hands of Matt Lazarek for an interception in the end zone. Milford moved the ball out to midfield but there was controversy as the ball came loose on a jet sweep and Franklin recovered. The Hawks claimed it was a pass, not a hand-off, but the officials ruled it a fumble and the Panthers took over.
It became a bigger decision eight plays later when the Panthers punched it in for a two-score lead. Again, it was Gasbarro to Davis (eight catches, 166 yards), matching the receiver’s jersey number with a 23-yard strike. Although the extra point was no good after a low snap, the Panthers led 20-7.
That margin lasted about two minutes. On third and eight from his own 16, Pires found Scudo, who broke free of a tackle and got 28 yards. Then Pires slipped a pass to Dan Farrell over the middle and he found a seam for a 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Fourteen seconds later, the stunned home crowd was right back on its feet.
On the ensuing kick, senior Cole Lakatos, a transfer from Maryland, stepped up to grab the bouncing ball at the 27, found a hole on the left side, and raced 73 yards for his first Franklin touchdown. “Lakatos is brand new, but he’s a football dude and football dudes can play,” said Bain.
While a special teams score could’ve been a beak breaker, the Hawks refused to go away quietly. A 10-play, 78-yard drive got them back within one score. Rosa set up the eventual score with a 22-yard burst down to the Franklin 15. Three plays and one penalty later, on third and 21, Pires threw one up for Scudo on the near sideline and the junior managed to come down with it just in bounds to make it 27-20.
“He’s electric,” Milford coach Anthony Vizakis said of Scudo. “He’s got the speed, he’s got the hands, and we’re really excited to see what he’s going to do.”
When asked if he was surprised at how quickly Pires has gelled with a new set of receivers, Vizakis replied, “They’ve been working all summer. He’s got those guys in the morning working and they’re doing extra stuff after practice, so it didn’t really surprise me. I think we’re only going to get better from here.”
The game settled down for a couple minutes as the teams managed to go just about eight minutes without getting into the end zone. Franklin appeared to put the game away with a 11-play, 71-yard drive that chewed up several minutes off the clock. Sophomore Mack Gulla opened his account for the Panthers when he burst through the line for a four-yard score.
Gasbarro showed off his ability to make plays on the run, keeping a couple of plays alive, taking hits, and managing to find open receivers to keep the drive alive.
“We try to work the scramble drill when we can, but a lot of that is just natural,” said Bain. “He did one that he found Jake Davis near the end there and I’m thinking we’re getting the sack and maybe we’re calling something safe on the next call and punting the ball.”
It seemed like the game was finally out of reach, but appearances can be deceiving. Milford came right back down the field, going 80 yards in only two plays, to make it a one-score game again and give themselves a shot at an onside kick. Pires connected with Scudo for 58 yards to get things started and then with Matt Varteresian for 22 and the score.
“Our kids don’t quit,” said Vizakis. “They play right to the end. We’re training them to play 48 minutes of football now and they played every single play. I’m really proud of the way that they played.”
Franklin managed to collect the onside kick with two minutes left, run out the clock, and finally take a breath.