SHREWSBURY, Mass. -– St. John’s quarterback Andrew Smiley noticed receiver Micah Cummins putting on a red basketball-like compression sleeve on his left arm before this afternoon’s visit from Longmeadow, and kept things real –- “You drop a pass, I’m gonna be all over you about it,” Smiley cracked to him.
Done and done.
Not only did Cummins refrain from a drop, but the 5-foot-11 wideout came up with two pivotal touchdown catches in the first half that put the No. 18 Pioneers ahead for good. The defense did the rest in the second half, forcing the No. 6 Lancers into three straight turnovers on downs en route to a 35-14 win at Pioneer Field.
After a dazzling debut in his first varsity start last week against Holy Name (353 yards, 4 TD), Smiley once again went over the 300-yard mark in total offense. He was 16-of-18 passing for 246 yards, and carried the ball 15 times for 96 yards, with four touchdowns total.
Meanwhile Cummins finished with four catches for 74 yards for St. John’s (2-0), but earned most of his yardage after the catch with some slippery moves. At 160 pounds, Cummins is not the biggest or most intimidating target for the Pioneers – but he may have the best body control.
That was perhaps best explicated on Cummins’ second touchdown catch, a 30-yard snag at the two-minute warning of the first half that put the Pioneers ahead 21-14. The play called for Cummins to run a “jerk” route to the left sideline, in which the receiver fakes like he will sit in a zone hole before continuing his shallow crossing route. He hauled in Smiley’s short dart with a few feet of real estate left, then planted upfield, spun through one defender, juked to the right of another, and marched the final 25 yards untouched.
That was preceded by a 47-yard strike to Cummins towards the end of the first quarter that put the Pioneers up 14-7. Cummins ran a post route up the left sideline, facing man coverage with a safety shaded to his side, and was sprung free by a pick from John Giacoppe (5 catches, 62 yards) to make the grab behind the safety and glide into the end zone.
“He’s so shifty, hard to tackle,” Smiley said. “He’s not the strongest kid out there, but he’s quick. He’s just hard to tackle.”
Smiley came up with two more scores in the third quarter to put this one away, first calling his number for a seven-yard scamper, then finding Davon Jones on a seam deep downfield for a 30-yard pass.
Improved defense: The Pioneers came away with the win last week against Holy Name, but were not satisfied with the run defense, giving up 463 yards and five scores on the ground to the Naps’ vaunted Double Wing scheme (282 coming from Quron Wright). This week, they split that number in half, allowing 233 yards and two scores against the Lancers’ modified Wing-T scheme (which today also showed elements of the “Flexbone” formation, with heavy personnel groupings).
Give credit to the front four for that marked improvement. Against a Longmeadow’s senior-laden offensive line that is considered one of the state’s best -- averaging over 260 pounds across, and led by road graders Rob McClure and Lou Calabrese -- the Pioneers held their own. Led by juniors Jeff DeMango and Connor Gatto, and sophomore Sam Norton, they were able to stuff the interior gaps ably.
The hallmark of today’s defensive effort was the aforementioned second-half effort, in which the Lancers ended three straight drives with a turnover on downs in Pioneer territory.
“They’ve gotten some confidence every week, and they’re getting better,” St. John’s head coach John Andreoli said. “We’ve played some tough teams all along – Brockton, New Bedford, Shepherd Hill [all three were scrimmages], Holy Name, I mean those are great teams. And our kids stepped up and played disciplined.
“We stayed in a lot of base fronts today, they trusted their reads, and ran to the football. That’s what they did, and that’s what they’ve been doing all year.”
Longmeadow quarterback Frankie Elder led the Lancers with 86 yards and a score on 16 carries, but a had a forgettable day through the air with 74 yards on 5-of-17 passing, with two picks. Fullback Austin Sierra also had 14 carries for 68 yards.
Dejection, but praise: Some Lancers felt their hearts sink to their knees in the moments following the game. Elder, for one, sat on the grass, helmet still buckled and lay motionless with a thousand-yard stare.
With legendary former head coach Alex Rotsko leaving behind arguably one of the Lancers’ most talented senior classes in a while, there have been high hopes for this year’s squad, with a No. 6 preseason ranking in ESPNBoston.com’s statewide MIAA poll. A win today would have satisfied Longmeadow’s wishes to be taken seriously as one of the state’s elite programs.
But in the eyes of many, they already are, and have been for some time.
“It’s a respectable win [today], because Longmeadow is a very good program,” Cummins said. “I think in a couple articles, they said they wanted to get themselves into the elite of Massachusetts football, and I think they already are elite. I look back at the stats, and they’re one of the top programs in the state year in and year out.
“They’re well-coached, and I have all the respect in the world for them.”
One aspect of the Lancers’ gameplan that worked particularly well today was their defense of St. John’s running back Shadrach Abrokwah. Coming off a 205-yard, three-touchdown performance last week over Holy Name, the Worcester resident was held to 36 yards on seven carries, but did have a nice 40-yard reception off a swing pass.
But as the stats indicate from today’s game. Keying Abrokwah on the zone read opened the field once again for Smiley and the air attack.
“They’re just athletic,” Longmeadow head coach Nick St. George said. “They’re good athletes, they have good receivers, they get the ball out to their guys in space and they force you to make tackles. We missed a lot of tackles today.”
Flash cards? One of the most interesting nuggets from today’s post-game interviews was the suggestion from Smiley that the Pioneers may begin to utilize flash cards from the sideline to speed up what has already been a turbo-charged playcalling system.
But not just any ol’ flash cards. One of the main storylines with the Pioneers’ early season is how they have adopted the “Blur offense” tempo popularized by the University of Oregon under coach Chip Kelly. In recent years, Kelly’s assistants have used posterboard-sized placards consisting of four panels with seemingly any sort of picture on it –- a number, a color, a school logo, a mascot, characters from Caddyshack, hosts from ESPN College Gameday, and so forth.
Even among the increasingly-innovative college coaching ranks, Oregon’s method of calling in plays is considered radical. The only thing that’s come close so far in the MIAA in recent years might be Duxbury, which dresses five JV players in bright orange hats (nicknamed “The Amigos”) and gives them color-coded cards to hold up.
“Oh, we might be bringing those out,” Smiley said when a reporter asked about replicating the “Blur” tempo and referenced the Ducks’ flash cards.
Have they been working on it?
“Yeah, a little bit,” Smiley said.
It could be an innocent comment, and ultimately nothing could come of this. But given the progression of this offense, it could also be the next natural step.
ST. JOHN’S 35, LONGMEADOW 14
LHS 7 7 0 0 --- 14
SJS 14 7 14 0 --- 35
L – Frankie Elder 3 run (Eric Barsalou kick) 6:36
S – Andrew Smiley 8 run (Pat Lehane kick) 6:16
S – Micah Cummins 47 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 1:50
L - Joe Lee 1 run (Barsalou kick) 6:51
S – Cummins 30 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 2:00
S – Smiley 7 run (Lehane kick) 8:02
S – Davon Jones 30 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 1:52