LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Over the past two seasons, the St. John's defense has provided no answers in how to stop, or even slow down, Leominster's vaunted dual-threat offense. The Pioneer coaching staff have been often left scratching their heads in trying to develop new concepts to keep the Blue Devils out of the end zone.
After Friday night's 33-22 season-opening defeat at Doyle Field, it appears as though St. John's still hasn't gotten it right and another trip back to the drawing board seems imminent.
Leominster's offensive unit punched the Pioneers square in the mouth, accumulating 397 yards while managing to sustain several drives after converting key first downs. The victory marks the Blue Devils' fifth straight over St. John's dating back to 2011. Included among those triumphs are a pair of Super Bowl titles. The Pioneers, as was the case in the previous meetings, had trouble tackling and in their coverage schemes. Neither worked.
Senior quarterback Neil O'Connor, having not played the position since his freshman season, looked truly at ease. The former wide receiver completed 18 of 24 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. He proved just as effective on ground, scoring three times, finishing with 71 yards on 12 attempts.
"This is a great win because it is always a battle with them," said O'Connor, who like many others was battling cramps in the muggy conditions. "This is the funnest team to play other than (Thanksgiving rival) Fitchburg. We always come out for every game and try to play Leominster-type football. Tonight was a great atmosphere under the lights before a packed house at our own field. This win certainly gets us rolling now. I had never played quarterback in an atmosphere like this so I just tried to block it all out and focus on what we needed to do."
Having lost a couple of key personnel to graduation, nonetheless, the Blue Devils still returned a solid nucleus on both sides of the football. Likewise, St. John's had strong weaponry at key positions, primarily on the offensive side.
The Pioneer defense had issues trying to shut down Leominster's pistol formation. At times, they looked dazed and confused on whether or not to key on the run or the pass. In several cases their decision in choosing what to defend wound up costing them on the scoreboard.
"Overall defensively we had a couple of third down situations where we didn't stop them," Pioneers coach John Andreoli said. "(O'Connor) made a couple of tremendous athletic plays and we missed quite a few tackles and Leominster made us pay for it. In a game like this against a team like that you cannot make mistakes and we did."
After coming up short on their first series, the Blue Devils were given a short field on their next one. St. John's punter Shane Combs mis-handled the snap and was dropped for a 16 yard loss giving Leominster the ball on the Pioneer 21. Four runs by O'Connor set up running back James Gurley's four-yard toss into the end zone giving the Blue Devils a 6-0 lead. St. John's senior quarterback Drew Smiley (18 of 35, 194 yards) answered the score with one of his own, darting into the end zone on a seven-yard carry. Following the PAT, the Pioneers led 7-6 early in the second quarter.
The remainder of the half, however, belonged to Leominster. O'Connor danced his away out of an apparent sack, turning it into a 15 yard scoring run. Jarell Addo's follow-up conversion catch had the Blue Devils back in front 14-7. After getting the ball back, the Pioneers quickly gave it away after Combs fumbled it over to the Blue Devils, putting them in great shape on the Pioneer 48. With just 30 seconds left in the quarter, O'Connor threw an 18 yard strike to receiver Jake Allain (six catches, 78 yards) over the middle to increase the Blue Devils lead to 20-7 going into the half.
Realizing the offense they were using over the first 22 minutes wasn't working, St. John's opted to go with much safer pass patterns for its heralded signal-caller. The Pioneers discovered the screen pass could be an effective weapon to get them back in this tilt. Senior receiver Mike McGillicuddy, who did not catch a pass the entire first half, was St. John's primary receiver of choice throughout the second.
McGillicuddy finished with eight receptions totalling 90 yards. He inched St. John's closer after hauling in a seven-yard pass from Smiley on the team's first drive to begin the third quarter, making it 20-14. But Leominster always had an answer. Marching 80 yards on the ensuing possession, O'Connor finished it off with a 1 yard dive with 3 minutes remaining in the quarter to hoist the Blue Devils lead out to 26-14.
St. John's got the ball back and were starting to find holes in the Leominster defense. Moving the ball to the Blue Devil 13 and facing fourth down, Smiley, who was continuously forced outside the pocket by a hard-charging Leominster front line, lofted a ball into the end zone that was picked off by Allain. Moments later, to start the fourth, the Pioneers again drove deep into Leominster territory but this time they capitalized as Smiley found junior Devon Jones on a 26 yard scoring reception. Smiley then added the conversion run to suddenly bring the Pioneers to within four at 26-22 with 7:44 to go.
But once again the Blue Devils found a way to storm back. Methodically moving the ball down field, and showing great poise, the objective to chew time off the clock and tack on more points to put this out of reach appeared destined. Leominster did just that. Aided by a critical pass interference penalty, the Blue Devils took advantage as O'Connor, upon seeing the Pioneer defense taking away the inside gaps, ran an option-keeper outside the right tackle and rumbled 24 yards untouched into the end zone to seal the deal for Leominster.
"We knew St. John's likes to run spread on offense," said Blue Devils coach Dave Palazzi, his club holding the Pioneers to 246 yards, only 42 in the first half. "We just felt we needed to play our game and focus on the whole field. Our 11 guys did a great job out there on defense. It was a great performance on both sides of the ball. We had a great game plan on both sides. I cannot say enough of the effort they put forth tonight."
Johnson honored: Longtime Leominster baseball coach was honored before Friday night's game. Johnson who accumulated 725 victories, recently stepped down from the position. Johnson was three Division 1 state championships with the Blue Devils in 1986, 1988 and 1996. He is a member of the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, Fitchburg State University Hall of Fame and will be inducted into Leominster's inaugural Hall of Fame class this weekend.
Light remembered: St. John's players wore stickers on its helmets with the initials "DJL" in honor of Daniel Jonathan Light who passed away this past summer from ALS. Light is the father of former Pioneer standout quarterback Dan Light, who is now playing defensive back at Fordham University.