WRENTHAM, Mass. – King Philip got the ball back up by seven points with just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter of Thursday morning’s holiday matinee at Macktaz Field and went back to work with the ground game that had been nearly unstoppable for most of the game.
After running more than seven minutes off the clock, KP had first down from the Franklin 30 and looked like it was maybe one or two plays away from clinching the title-deciding showdown.
Rudy Gately (21 carries, 116 yards) was stopped for a loss of three by Emmett Lackey. Quarterback Tommy McLeish took the next snap and went on a sweep around the left side, but Franklin read the play and pried the ball loose. Devine Johnson pounced on it at the 34 to give the visitors a chance with 6:11 on the clock.
Mike Davide (11 carries, 40 yards) broke free for a 13-yard gain into KP territory and Jase Lyons (20-of-27, 232 yards) hit Josh Ribeiro on the sideline. Ribeiro refused to go out of bounds, cutting back infield and eventually gaining 17 to the KP 28. After back-to-back completions to Luke Davis, Lyons kept it himself, looking for contact in the secondary and being brought down at the three. Davide finished the drive to bring the Panthers within one.
Instead of lining up for a Garrett Portesi extra point and potentially playing for overtime, Franklin coach Eian Bain rolled the dice and kept the offense on the field.
“Not for a second,” Bain said later, when asked if he thought about kicking. “We were going for two and then just onside kick it if we have to. We were going for the win right there and then make them have to make a decision too, do they stick with the offense they ran the whole game?”
Lyons dropped back and looked for Davis on a quick out-route a couple yards into the end zone. Davis (nine catches, 153 yards) made the diving grab and put the Panthers up 29-28 with only 2:46 left on the clock. The Franklin defense was able to limit KP to just one first down, sealing a win and a share of its second straight Kelley-Rex division title.
“We just had a good matchup,” Bain said. “We had a play call for both sides and when they adjusted from the empty backfield, we had Luke one-on-one, which is what we wanted.”
Davis was thrilled at his coach’s decision to stick with the offense in that situation. He said, “I was hoping for him to say that. Obviously, KP is a good team and they have their drives, so just to get that extra point was huge. I had full confidence in Jase and the offense to make the play, so it was a great call. Trust coach.”
KP coach Brian Lee rued uncharacteristic turnovers from his team that led to two Franklin touchdowns, including the eventual winner, but also praised Bain for his call to go for two at the end.
“We were just about another first down away from giving (Matthew) Kelley a chance for a field goal and kudos to them,” Lee explained. “Bottom line, we’ve got to hold onto the ball. We turned it over twice. Once on an exchange – points, and down here – points.”
He added, “The guts on coach to go for two. That’s a great call. I love that stuff, going for that win here. It shows that program is in good hands.”
Franklin came into Thanksgiving an underdog against KP, which is heading back to its fifth Div. 2 Super Bowl in six seasons, but the Panthers were riding the confidence of beating the Warriors last year (ending a decade without a win in this series) and got off to a roaring start. On third and five, Lyons went deep down the sideline to Davis, who hauled in the pass then cut back towards the hash mark and raced past a pair of defenders for a 69-yard TD.
“He does everything,” Bain said about Davis. “He’s going to be impossible to replace. I don’t think the kid ever gets tired, I don’t think he ever doesn’t smile, he always goes and he does it right way too.”
Davis noted, “Being on that team last year, we got that feeling of success. We’ve been working at it all year, had KP in the back of the mind all year until it was finally Thanksgiving week. Having that success last year, helped us know what it meant and know what the feeling is to win this game.”
KP responded like it usually does, but lining up behind its big offensive line and running right at the heart of the defense. On their first drive of the day, KP marched 64 yards on nine plays, all of them runs between the tackles. Gately had five carries on the drive, including a 16-yard rush inside the Franklin 10. William Astorino (14 carries, 109 yards) punched it from the two to tie it.
Kyle Abbott and Christopher Sesay each sacked Lyons to end Franklin’s next possession. KP got the ball back and went 57 yards on eight plays, again all runs right up the middle, to take the lead. Astorino and Gately split the carries on the drive, with Astorino finding the end zone on a 12-yard run. Kelley’s extra point made it 14-7.
Franklin drove into KP territory, but David Constantine’s interception ended the drive at the Warriors 12. On third and 17, a fumbled hand-off was recovered by Jack Nutter to give the Panthers the ball at the 18. The Panthers took advantage, as Lyons recovered from being sacked twice (by Carson Meier and Astorino) to hit Davis for a six-yard score, tying the game with 46 seconds left in the half.
Coming out of the locker room, the Warriors took control. A seven-play, 65-yard drive kicked things off. Abott broke free for 16 yards into Franklin’s half of the field and then Astorino ran over defenders on a 32-yard rush down to the 13. Four plays later, Astorino got his third score of the day from two yards out.
The KP defense stepped up to stop Franklin. Gately was playing centerfield and he read a deep ball to Davis on the sideline, coming across to pick it off and return it down to the Panthers 26. On second down, McLeish went play-action and hit Astorino in the right flat. The running back did the rest, weaving his way to the end zone for a 28-14 lead.
Momentum was swinging back-and-forth and this time it was Franklin’s turn to steal it back. The Panthers went 69 yards in nine plays to get back into the game. A pass interference call got the ball to the 27. After and eight-yard pass to Derek Dubriske (five catches, 32 yards), Lyons fired a strike to Davis, who went up and over the defensive back to pull in the 19-yard score.
Killing the clock and killing off the game is usually KP’s forte, but the Panthers found a way to force the turnover and give themselves one last chance to retain the Kelley-Rex crown. When they found the end zone, there was no question of going for the tie, only for the win.
Bain said of the comeback that earned Franklin (7-3) its first back-to-back league titles since 1971, “King Philip makes you play a certain way. You’ve got to get a little grimy, you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and you’ve got to bang with them. Today we got hit in the mouth plenty, there were any number of times where we could’ve said, ‘You know what, we had a good run,’ but these guys never gave up.”
King Philip (9-2) will play Catholic Memorial in the D2 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night at 8:00. It is a rematch of last year’s title game, but Lee was adamant that the upcoming final had no impact on his team’s play on Thursday.
“Up 14, that’s something where you feel like you should be able to control it and we just couldn’t,” Lee said. “No. 6 (Davis) is a dude and the quarterback gets the ball out on time and that puts you under pressure. They kept making plays, kept fighting, and kept believing and that’s a hard thing to combat.”