SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- With the game on the line and seven seconds remaining on the clock, Leominster football head coach Dave Palazzi threw out the playbook and did the unconventional. He asked his quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie and wide receiver Neil O’Connor what they wanted to do.
Like a sandlot game, drawing up patterns with a stick in the dirt, it was O’Connor who dialed up the perfect connection.
“O’Connor looked at me and said, ‘I think I can get him on a hitch,’” Palazzi said.
With Palazzi’s blessing, the No. 18 Blue Devils broke the huddle and executed the play to perfection. When O’Connor fell into the end zone with four seconds remaining Saturday at No. 20 St. John’s of Shrewsbury, Leominster came away with the winning score, capping a frenetic fourth quarter and a 37-34 comeback win.
The brain trust behind the game-winning play deflected praise for its execution, however.
“That was all Garrett,” O’Connor said after his two-touchdown performance. “He threw a great ball, he put it right on my chest, I turned and then I just fell in the end zone.”
O’Connor’s hitch route worked. It also marked the third lead change of the game in its final five minutes. After Shane O’Donnell’s 1-yard touchdown run with 4:49 to play, the Pioneers (4-3) went back into their blitzkrieg offense and reclaimed the lead, 34-29, with 1:59 remaining.
From there, DelleChiaie marched the Blue Devils (5-2) on a 9-play, 75-yard drive.
“Our defense has been carrying us for a year and a half, and they played a great game,” Palazzi said. “St. John’s offense is tough as we all know. It was time for our offense, for once, to get it done when it counted. We’re down, in a two-minute drives, it’s just about guys blocking and making plays.”
So about that game-winning touchdown catch.
The play itself and the trusting nature of Palazzi to put the game – literally – into the hands of his offensive playmakers was something to admire.
The 6-yard pass from DelleChiaie (17 of 29, 212 yards) to O’Connor came on a second-and goal play. The Blue Devils tried a similar play on their first-down try, but saw DelleChiaie throw the ball out the back of the end zone.
“[Palazzi] said to be smart and take care of the ball really,” DelleChiaie said of his coach’s advice embarking on the two-minute drill, “if nobody’s there, throw it away.”
With O’Connor bracketed on the play, DelleChiaie made the right decision, giving himself another crack at it. The second time around, it fired on all cylinders. The pass blocking was there, DelleChiaie made the throw, O’Connor ran the route.
Just as they drew it up.
“We lined up Neil by himself and ran him a quick 90-hitch route,” DelleChiaie said. “We knew [the cornerback] was off and Neil was going to make the play.”
STRIVING FOR IMPROVEMENT
After surrendering more than 100 points in their last two outings, the Pioneers defense had an opportunity to acquit themselves by making a making a fourth-quarter stand. While St. John’s was improved on the bulk, it went down as another missed opportunity to make a statement.
Pioneers head coach John Andreoli preached to his group this week about getting off the field quickly, limiting opponents’ ability to get chunks of yardage on first and second down.
For the most part, St. John’s was effective on the early downs, but instead struggled to get off the field consistently on third down. The Blue Devils converted 7 of 13 third-down situations, including two touchdown plays.
“We want to make it second-and-nine and we can then dictate the call,” Andreoli said. “We did that a couple times today, but then we’d let them out and give them a big play when they had their backs against the wall. We can’t do that. That’s an opportunity for us to win a football game when you’re able to make a defensive stop in a certain situation.
“We’re not doing that. We’re not making the plays we have to at the times when you need to make them.”
Again, the Pioneers offense was on-point. Quarterback Andrew Smiley completed 16 of 22 pass attempts for 167 yards and one touchdown. Senior running back Shadrach Abrokwah ran for 103 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns.
“We just need to get back to having that defensive personality of getting off the field after third down.”
That would mean a world of improvement for the Pioneers.