NEEDHAM, Mass. –- It couldn’t have gotten any worse for Needham’s defense. But after a rough 36-26 loss to Westwood in Week 1, the Rockets (who were a preseason Top 25-ranked team) had last week’s bye to get their house in order before meeting Bay State Conference rival No. 12 Walpole on Friday.
Head coach Dave Duffy and his staff used the off week to its fullest, preparing a perfect game plan for the Rebels.
Of course, a 15-carry, 196-yard performance from senior Mike Panepinto didn’t hurt, but the key to the Rockets’ head-turning 26-6 win over the Rebels was their defense. The unit, which had in its debut struggled, couldn’t have been more different. While Walpole was able to move the ball, evidenced by quarterback Will Bolster’s 249 passing yards, while completing 23 of 40 pass attempts, Needham simply made plays when it mattered most.
Twice the Rebels were presented with promising red zone situations and were held without a single point.
“I wanted them to get a zero,” said Panepinto, who broke off touchdown runs of 88 and 20 yards. “We were giving them [the business] in practice after we gave up 36 points to Westwood. And I think they really took it personally after Westwood, and they were ready for tonight.
“They made a statement tonight.”
The first Rockets (1-1) defensive stand came at the end of the first half. With the Rebels (1-1) driving, Needham stalled Walpole’s attempt to get on the board in the final minute of the second quarter. The Rebels attempted a 27-yard field goal attempt as time ran out before the half – following a botched snap on third and goal from the 5 – but when the kick sailed wide left, the Rockets took a 12-0 lead to the intermission.
Needham rode the momentum into the second half, scoring on the opening drive. With an efficient five-play, 67-yard drive, Panepinto found the end zone for a second time with a 20-yard run, following his electrifying 88-yarder in the second quarter.
Walpole again knocked on the door on the ensuing drive, but again the Rebels failed to score. On fourth and 1 from the Rockets’ 4-yard line, Needham again showed its renewed defensive resolve. Senior linebacker Carter Christenson was first in among a group of Rockets defenders plugging the holes on the fullback dive up the middle.
The Rockets again seized the opportunity, capping an emphatic 96-yard drive on Ryan Charter’s 44-yard pass to Mike Elcock on the post for a 26-0 lead with 2:14 remaining in the third quarter.
Walpole finally got on the board with 9:11 remaining with a 4-yard touchdown connection from Bolster to Steve Cuqua on a bootleg roll-out.
Elcock in on the play: Hardly a play elapsed – on offense or defense – where senior wide receiver/defensive back Mike Elcock didn’t factor.
Elcock, who’s also a standout member of the Rockets lacrosse squad, hauled in two touchdown receptions, but really made his presence felt in the secondary. He recorded a game-high five passes defended, including an interception on Walpole’s Hail Mary attempt on the final play of the game.
“He played great,” Duffy said of Elcock. “He’s a senior, he’s a real leader. He’s the real leader of the secondary. He’s a smart kid and he plays tough.”
Elcock wasn’t the only Rockets defensive back making a contribution. Jake Schernecker and Cliff Kurker also contributed pass break-ups in key spots.
While Needham allowed for Bolster and the Rebels offense to operate underneath, Elcock and his teammates sealed off the deep portion of the field.
“I think once [they] got on our side of the field,” Elcock said of Needham’s bend-but-don’t-break defense, “the line would not give up an inch on the run, we stuffed them. And all they could get is five-yard completions, we weren’t letting anything behind us.”
But it was Elcock, himself, who provided the biggest passing play of the evening, out-running the Rebels coverage on a 44-yard score off play-action.
“We’d just been running all over them and we in a double-tight formation, so they were expecting run all the way,” Elcock said. “Then, we just burned them deep with the one high safety.”
A must win?: It’s a little too early in the season to call it a must-win, but Friday’s game was nearly that for Needham.
In a loaded Division 2 South field, the Rockets could ill-afford a loss to the ranked Rebels following their Week 1 letdown against Westwood.
Not that they were about to pay attention.
“I don’t really understand how the whole thing works,” Panepinto said candidly about the MIAA’s new playoff system.
“Coach Duffy and the staff do a good job keeping us from looking too far ahead. On Monday, we’ll be on to [Newton] North, that’s what we’ll be concerned with.”
Cause for concern?: Aside from Friday's loss, the most costly thing to happen to Walpole might be the loss of senior running back Conor Moriarty.
Moriarty, who rushed for 58 yards on 13 carries, left the game after an apparent injury after a 7-yard gain in the third quarter and did not return.