WESTFIELD, Mass. -- Andrew Smiley admitted he “didn’t even know what was going on”, when he saw the pass take a wild ricochet off the pads of an otherwise very reliable receiver.
But when it came into his crosshairs, the St. John’s senior said, all that came across his mind was, “The ball's mine, it's in the air”.
And so that’s how the thrilling conclusion of the weekend’s most-anticipated MIAA Football State Semifinal came to an abrupt end, after such a rapid start.
Smiley -- a Navy lacrosse commit, known almost exclusively for his quarterbacking exploits -- has become a part-time safety in sub packages, as the Pioneers continue to climb deeper into the postseason. With 20 seconds left, Smiley came up with one of the most athletic plays of the day out of the secondary, hauling in a one-handed interception off a tip-drill, to seal a 37-32 come-from-behind victory for St. John's over favorite Springfield Central. That clinched the Pioneers a spot in Dec. 7's Division 2 State Final at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, their second appearance in three seasons.
"I honestly didn’t even know what was going on," admitted Smiley, who had another solid day of offense (223 passing yards, 2 TD; 109 rushing yards). "I kinda just went up there with one hand and pulled it down. I didn’t really know what happened. . . Coach wanted me over the top, kind of like a jumper, free safety, just read the quarterback’s eyes and fly to the ball. I was kinda playing the overthrow or the tip, and the kid tipped it up so I just went up there and grabbed it."
Said junior safety Davon Jones, the other defensive back lurking in the end zone, "My heart kinda skipped a beat. I was really excited. I can’t explain the feeling. We’re going back to Gillette, it’s a great feeling and I’m proud for my coaches, my team, everything."
For much of the fourth quarter, St. John's was on its heels, after running back Shane Combs was tripped up by a shoestring tackle from Central linebacker Kenneth Marshall, coughing the ball up inside the 10 and watching Da'Quan Clemons fall on it.
What could have been a two-possession lead for the Pioneers instead turned into a 32-31 lead for Central with 6:23 to go. Starting from their own 14, the Golden Eagles called the number of tailback Troy Morrow (18 carries, 130 yards, TD) eight straight times for a total of 83 yards, most of it gained on a 35-yard iso cutback across midfield. Clemons (16 carries, 95 yards, TD) punched it in from three yards out for the one-point lead, but the two-point pass attempt failed.
After an ensuing three-and-out from the Pioneers, Morrow returned the punt all the way inside the red zone, only to get brought back by a chop block penalty. Three plays later, Pioneers linebacker Pat Ryan fell on an Eagles fumble at their own 46 with 2:42 left on the clock.
That was more than enough time for the Pioneers and their Oregon-like "Blur" offense to march down the field for a score. Five plays into the drive, Smiley found T.J. Kelley on a deep out route 20 yards down the right sideline; that set up Combs' go-ahead score on the next play, lumbering in from 15 yards out on an inside zone cutback. Smiley's pass attempt on the point after fell incomplete.
Central quarterback Cody Williams (15 of 25, 200 yards, TD) moved his troops swiftly downfield on the ensuing drive, moving into the St. John's red zone with two darts to Malik Johnson (5 catches, 99 yards, TD) and another to his cousin Tysean Williams. But on first and 10 from the 14, with 20 seconds to go, Cody hit his cousin coming across the middle with a pass that took a high bounce of his shoulder pads. Smiley was there for the one-handed pounce, and the game.
"We hung in there, and made plays down the stretch when we needed to," Pioneers head coach John Andreoli said. "Our offense and defense trusted each other, and these kids have no quit. They know that at any point in the game we can pull it out, and that’s what happened today.
"There’s no panic. We put it on the groud, but we have five timeouts and score quick. So you’ve got to be patient and execute, we have an opportunity to put points on the board at any time. And that’s what we did."
In a class by himself: The hype behind Jones, one of only three freshman to ever start a varsity game under Andreoli, has been out for a while. Also one of the state's top combo guards during basketball season, his athleticism speaks for itself, and he's on the radar of local FBS football programs such as Boston College and UMass.
Yet for all of the exceptional feats of athleticism or bone-jarring hits from the free safety position that he's made to this point, this felt like his best game yet. Jones finished the day with eight catches for 115 yards and two very pretty touchdowns, both of them soft lobs that he high-pointed dramatically in the back of the end zone.
Jones' first TD grab, on the game-opening drive, was a check called at the line of scrimmage. Isolated opposite strength of a trips formation, in single-coverage, Jones leaped above Central's Tyreke Estrada-Crapps and plucked the ball with both hands as he fell in front of the back pylon. On his second grab, he found himself in man-to-man coverage again, this time from Morrow; he pushed vertically downfield, then turned and out-leaped his man for a 28-yard grab just one play after Central had fumbled the opening kickoff return of the second half. That made it 31-20, just 16 seconds into the third quarter.
"He’s the best football player I’ve ever played with," Smiley said. "He is a freak athlete. I throw the ball to him in his area, he’s going to jump over kids to get it. He’s got like a 40-inch vertical, he’s an amazing athlete. If I throw him the ball, he’s going to go get it."
Smiley has played with some good ones over his career, and is a friend of another highly-touted Worcester product, Boston College-bound athlete Isaac Yiadom of Doherty High. Asked if he's ever seen anyone high-point it like Jones, Smiley said, "No, no. He can just fly. He can jump out of the roof, and he’ll just go get the ball."
Jones deferred credit to Smiley on his catches, saying, "Drew just puts the ball up high for me, he’s a great, accurate passer and he makes it easy for me. "
The 6-foot, 170-pound Jones also came up with his sixth interception of the year in the second half, jumping in front of Johnson's route deep in the red zone after initially swerving towards Ju'an Williams underneath.
"[Ju’an Williams] was running a corner, and I kinda bit it," Jones said. "They’d been going to him the whole game, and I just got lucky on that one."
Andreoli called Jones' performance, "the game of his life".
"He’s just a football player that loves to play, and I’ll put him up there against anybody," Andreoli said. "His best games have been the biggest games, and that’s what characterizes a kid who’s going to play at the next level, because he’s got the ability to step up and make big plays against good players.
"It’s not only he high-points it, it’s that he goes over the top and puts it away. He’s a basketball player too, so you know, he goes up there with some ups, and he wants the football when it’s up in the air. Nobody is going to take it away from him."
ST. JOHN'S 37, SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL 32
SJS - 10 - 14 - 7 - 6 --- 37
CEN - 8 - 12 - 6 - 6 --- 32
S - Davon Jones 9 pass from Andrew Smiley (John Coveney kick) 9:52
S - Coveney 28 field goal 6:12
C - Marcal Davis 2 run (Davis run)
C - Troy Morrow 5 run (kick failed) 7:20
S - Shane Combs 2 run (Coveney kick) 4:53
C - Malik Johnson 39 pass from Cody Williams (kick failed) 4:01
S - Combs 3 run (Coveney kick) 1:31
S - Jones 28 pass from Smiley (Coveney kick) 10:44
C - Davis 1 run (rush failed) 6:58
C - Da'Quan Clemons 3 run (pass failed) 6:23
S - Combs 15 run (pass failed) 1:15