DANVERS, Mass. – No. 18 St. John’s Prep headed to the locker room down 14-6 to No. 21 Central Catholic Saturday. The Eagles had been without their best running back, Tyler Coppola, for part of the half and head coach Jim O’Leary thought the Raiders were being tipped off on their runs. Their option attack wasn’t yielding much either.
So O’Leary did what any good football coach does: He adjusted.
First, he put in a couple plays on play-action to get the ball into the hands of receiver Dillon Gonzalez.
Next, he changed up the Eagles’ blocking scheme in the run game to throw off Central Catholic’s keys on fullback Chris Ryan.
Those small changes added up in a big way for Prep on two second-half touchdown drives in a thrilling 22-21 comeback win.
“When the defense is keying in on the run, those passing lanes open up,” Gonzalez said. “We made some changes to our running game, too. Those were all adjustments that we made at halftime.”
Eagles junior quarterback Tommy Gaudet grabbed a botched snap, composed himself and snuck in for a 4-yard touchdown run — his second of the game — to bring Prep (2-0) within a point at 21-20. Gaudet then finished what he started by taking in the 2-point conversion on the keeper.
The Raiders (1-1) got the ball back with two minutes to play, but their drive was dashed when Ryan picked off a Matt McDermott pass over the middle in Eagles’ territory.
“Did you really think I would kick it there?” O’Leary said, grinning about his decision to go for two and the win.
Coppola, who finished with 15 carries for 136 yards, was knocked out of the game for part of first half after he was clipped by an opponent’s helmet on the chin. Eight stitches were required to close the gash.
The senior running back returned in time to led the Eagles back in the third quarter.
Coppola led Prep on a 79-yard touchdown drive that spanned more than eight minutes of the third. The drive culminated with his 32-yard touchdown run (the game was then tied 14-14 after Gaudet took in the 2-point try) to open the fourth quarter. Coppola accounted for 49 of the Eagles’ yards on the drive.
“I want the ball in those situations,” he said. “It gets you pumped up.”
Both of the Eagles’ second-half touchdowns were in no small way aided by Gonzalez’s efforts in the passing game.
The 5-foot-11 wide out skied over the Central Catholic secondary to haul in a sensational one-handed reception over the middle for a 21-yard gain and helped to set up Coppola’s touchdown run.
Gonzalez also put his imprint on what would prove to be the winning Prep drive. Once again, this time on a go-route down the right-hand sideline, he went up for a jump ball and came down the ball over a Raider defender.
“They were just flying up to our option so we put the pass to Dillon [Gonzalez] in,” O’Leary said. “Tommy [Gaudet] threw a nice ball and he got us down the field.”
Central Catholic was not without its bright spots though.
The new look Raiders offense was efficient under the direction of McDermott, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in shared time with Ben Onett.
Bruising running back Trae Musumarra contributed 10 carries, 56 hard-fought yards and a rushing touchdown, which temporarily reclaimed the lead, 21-14, for Central Catholic in the fourth quarter.
“They ran the ball between the tackles and we didn’t do a great job of stopping them,” Raiders head coach Chuck Adamopoulos said. “We scored the go ahead touchdown with [three] minutes to go. You’ve got to be able to win the game there. They went for two, which was a good move because we looked awful on defense at that point.
“They made the plays.”