FITCHBURG, Mass. -- After the first 22 minutes, the Leominster Blue Devils and their faithful were stone faced. And the bitterly cold, blustery conditions had nothing to do with it.
For a team that dominated the Central Mass. football landscape all season only to fall just shy of earning a trip to Gillette Stadium next weekend, the Blue Devils were being out-muscled and out-played throughout the first half by their arch-nemesis Fitchburg.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Especially for a team that entered today's 131st meeting (108th on Thanksgiving) with a bevy of more-gifted players than its opponent. Once the shock of the opening half had finally wore off, Leominster made the necessary adjustments at the break and took over this contest with a convincing 48-29 victory at stoic Crocker Field. The Blue Devils (10-1) have now won the previous six meetings against the Red Raiders, including a playoff match-up in 2011. They lead the overall series 63-59-10 that began way back in 1894.
"After the half we all felt there is no way we were going to continue to let (Fitchburg) hang with us," said senior wide receiver Jake Allain, who caught six Neil O'Connor passes for 103 yards, including a touchdown and a two-point conversion rush. "We knew we were the better team and we showed it in the second half. In that first half we let them get into our heads a little bit. At the half we talked about it in the locker room and then we woke up and came out and played hard the rest of the way."
For Fitchburg (3-8), the first half was an opportunity to show it was better than its record indicated. A last second lost to St. John's in Week 3 had virtually spun this team's psyche totally out of whack. The Red Raiders won only twice more this season -- both coming at the expense of a down and out North Middlesex program. But for those first 22 minutes, Fitchburg took on Blue Devils' challenge at every turn.
After falling behind quickly 6-0 courtesy of a James Gurley 44-yard jaunt off left tackle, the Red Raiders never winced. Shortly thereafter, a bad snap on a Leominster punt attempt was recovered by Fitchburg junior lineman Bruce Johnson at the 8 yard line. Three plays later, senior running back Julio Gonzalez plowed into the end zone from 3 yards out. Gaston Pastorino's PAT had the Red Raiders leading by a point.
While Leominster may still have been wallowing from its 51-42 defeat to St. John's in the Central Mass. Division 2 title game two weeks ago, the Red Raiders were shedding no tears. After Gurley's touchdown carry, the Blue Devils offense appeared to be stuck in neutral on the frozen sod, unable to move the chains as is their custom. But in the second quarter, they finally started moving the ball with some authority. O'Connor (11-of-21, 213 yards, 4 TDs) sustained an 86-yard drive by completing a pair of long passes to Allain and Mayson Williams to help set up a Jarell Addo 5-yard scoring reception which allowed Leominster to reclaim the lead 12-7 with 5:12 to go before halftime.
Fitchburg, however, answered right back with a definitive drive of its own. Starting on the Blue Devil 47, the backfield tandem of Gonzalez and junior Marcos Diaz methodically moved the Red Raiders down field. On a third-and-goal from the 1, quarterback Nik Myles, a senior, with a little assistance from his teammates, fell across the goal line with 18 seconds showing. Another Pastorino PAT sent Fitchburg into the break leading 14-12.
"We played a great first half," Red Raiders coach Dan Walker said. "Obviously in the second half (Leominster) came out and made some big plays and we didn't respond. Proud of our kids and their effort. They played tough against a very good team but we're looking to bounce back and get ready for next year."
To the naked eye, you could tell right from the outset of the second half that Leominster had had enough. It was time to wipe the St. John's loss from its memory banks and get down to business. In a span of 3:07 they did just that by registering a pair of touchdowns.
On the Blue Devils' second play to begin the third quarter, O'Connor hit Addo on a screen pass. The senior tight end did the rest as he raced down field, hurdled over a defender, and walked into the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown putting his club back on top 18-14. Leominster was never headed from there. Moments after Addo's score, Allain, playing defensive back, picked off Myles on Fitchburg's next series which would lead to a nifty 28-yard diving reception by Allain in the end zone. Matt Banchs' ensuing conversion catch now had the Blue Devils ahead by two scores, 26-14.
"We were getting focused the offense started to click," Allain said. "Our defense was stopping them and our coaches were calling great plays. That's how we did it."
With Fitchburg's offense unable to gain much traction against a re-charged Leominster defensive unit, the Blue Devils' seizing of the quarter would continue. Standing on the Red Raider 40. Gurley, who rushed for 59 yards on 7 attempts, broke free for a 16-yard carry. On the next play, Addo, with defensive back Manny Payton glued to his hip, made an acrobatic catch in the corner of the end zone. Following Timmy DeCarolis' conversion catch, Leominster was in total control now on top 34-14. Now looking befuddled, Fitchburg fumbled subsequent kickoff that was recovered by the Blue Devils at the Red Raiders' 17. With just 23 seconds to go in the third, running back Eddie Rivera (82 yards on 8 carries) busted through the line from 2 yards and a 42-14 advantage following Allain's two-point run.
"The field conditions were a little slippery today," said Leominster coach Dave Palazzi, whose club out-gained Fitchburg 313 yards to 215. "Fitchburg did a nice job in the first half taking away what we do well. We had to start throwing the ball and opening our receivers up a little bit. We thought our athleticism would take care of that.
"Our athletes took over. We were able to put the ball in their hands and were able to put the ball in the end zone. I felt our defense, in the third quarter, holding Fitchburg and forcing them to punt the ball into the wind was enormous. I felt our senior leadership really did a nice job pulling this team together at the half. Being 10-1 is not a bad year."
For the Red Raiders, who managed just 9 yards of offense in the quarter, it was time to man up or continue to let Leominster to walk all over them. Early in the final quarter, a Blue Devils' turnover led to a Darius Flowers (5 carries, 62 yards) 3-yard blast over the goal line. After recovering the on-side kickoff, the Red Raiders saw the drive stall inside the Leominster 20. With the ball back in their possession, the Blue Devils quickly marched 78 yards, with the final 64 coming on the legs of Rivera, who rumbled in for the score to put them in front by 27. With pride now becoming the only intangible left on the Red Raiders' agenda, they displayed some thanks to a Flowers 54-yard TD scramble and Myles' follow-up conversion rush to close this one out.