BURLINGTON, Mass. -- Reading's first month of the 2011 season was a forgettable one to say the least. After starting the year off in the top 20 of ESPNBoston's statewide MIAA poll, the Rockets stumbled to a 1-3 record out of the gates.
Headed into training camp, this was a squad viewed as green, with minute varsity experience, but talented no less. Tonight at Burlington High, the fruits of the latter trait were on display, as promising sophomore quarterback Drew Belcher completed 14 of 18 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and added a fourth rushing score, as Reading (2-3) staved off a dangerous Burlington Red Devils squad, 32-27.
"I can't say enough about how our kids played tonight," Reading head coach John Fiore said. "They played to win, they played loose, they played together, they played as a team. They just played so hard on defense. I mean, in a short week, we came off a short week with a real physical game against Melrose (a 14-12 loss), and to get your body ready, they worked very hard this week with great enthusiasm. Just can't say enough about the maturity they exhibited tonight."
Down 32-14 with two minutes left in the third, the Red Devils (3-2) rallied with two quick scores to cut the lead to five with 5:56 remaining. First, quarterback Shane Farley (16 of 23, 187 yards, 2 TD) hit Nick Ciardi with a 48-yard fade just before time ran out in the third. Six minutes later, Ciardi came up big again, hauling in a 61-yard halfback pass from Anthony Cruz.
Burlington forced a three-and-out and took over at the Rockets' 41 with 4:38 to go. But on fourth and 11 from the 20, Stephen Mattos hauled in a Farley pass over the middle and was dragged down by Bill Carnes a yard short of the first down marker.
Reading then sealed the win by converting a fake punt on fourth and one with 40 seconds left.
And while Fiore spoke high praises for the mettle his players showed tonight, Burlington head coach Shawn Maguire was left frustrated with what he thought could have been. Reminded of Ciardi's resolve in the second half, Maguire fired back, "Yep, but again, when it came crunch time, we couldn't make plays."
"We just didn't step up and make plays when we were supposed to," he said of his team, which surrendered 12 points off turnovers. "You can't give up 32 points and win. We're not tackling good enough, we're not covering well enough, we just didn't play good enough to win. That simple. We got outmanned out front, blocking and tackling. We lost the line of scrimmage tonight."
Fourth and Guts: The Rockets are never a team afraid of rolling the dice (see: last year's Division 2 playoff and Super Bowl contests), and that playcalling pluck reared its head again tonight on fourth and one with 40 ticks left in the ballgame.
A turnover on downs would have given the Red Devils first down at the Rockets' 34 -- with, as we saw in spurts tonight, ample time to put together a game-winning drive. Convention says in this instance to run a sneak up the middle, given Belcher's size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and the way the line of Matt Commeford, Peter Fodera, Andrew Ferrano, Tom Beucler and Vaughn Wilder were getting push most of the night.
Instead, Fiore called for a direct snap to Anthony DeSimone out of a punt formation, and the senior tailback took off down the right sideline for 18 yards. Keying the run was Liam Kenneally, who sustained his block 10 yards downfield on a Burlington defensive back, long enough to open up a wide seam outside of the hash marks.
Asked about his inclination against just running it up the middle, Fiore channeled his inner Les Miles.
"I think we just decided we didn't want to be crazy, but we wanted to be a little crazy," Fiore laughed. "We wanted to play to win, and you know what, he has the option to punt it if it's there. But you know what, that's Anthony DeSimone making a great athletic, hardcore play. He made the right read and took off, and that's what we needed."
Obstructing Odiah: Junior Marcus Odiah is considered arguably the Red Devils' most dangerous big-play threat, if not the highest ceiling for college recruiters. And while he finished the night with 109 yards and score on 19 carries, he was unable to sustain that pressure against the Rockets' defense throughout the game.
It's not often you see a no-huddle team that operates from under center, but it's a style that plays to the Devils' strengths -- that is, the running game, and the short passes to the flats -- and we saw flashes of brilliance tonight.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Odiah runs in an upright style and demonstrates great body control; the Devils called many zone and stretch plays to left side of the field, whereupon Odiah would strafe Northwest before cutting 45 degrees and accelerating very quickly upfield.
All that said, he had just three runs of 10 yards or more, one of which was a 38-yard scamper down the left sideline, showcasing that 4.5 speed. His lone score of the night, a six-yard plunge, ironically came after he fumbled in the backfield.
Credit the outside rush -- led by ends Fodera and Joe Staffier, and outside linebackers Kyle McCarthy and Mark Sheehan -- as well as improved run support from safeties DeSimone and Greg Connery.
"Look, they're not chop liver over there as far as their offensive line and tight ends," Fiore said of Burlington's run game. "We have to fit everything perfectly against them, especially a tailback like Marcus who can stop and go, zero to 100. You have to fit your blocks the right way, get off them, and we have to have some run support there, get that edge set firm where it needs to be, and have our pursuit get there.
"We mixed up some fronts, mixed up some coverages, and I thought we played hard to the run. I thought our safeties did a much better job playing to the run tonight."
Ciardi turned it up: For all the talk of Belcher's improving arm, and the tricky two-back read option scheme the Rockets deployed adequately tonight with tailbacks Alex Valente and DeSimone, it was Burlington's Ciardi that may have ended up stealing the show in the end.
Simply put, the 6-foot-1 senior brought the burners out of the locker room to put in a monster second half, hauling in three catches for 118 yards and two scores on the Red Devils' final two scoring drives. On the first score, Maguire called up a 48-yard fade to Ciardi, who was left in single coverage and had his man beat by about three yards when Farley's pass came into his hands. The second score was more of the same, leaving his defender in the dust.
Overall, Ciardi caught six passes for 156 yards.
Making the grade: Belcher first impressed last season when he relieved the injured Brian Bourque in the second quarter of a one-score game and stormed the Rockets to a victory over Lexington; this summer, watching him in 7-on-7's, he showed considerable poise for a kid just 15 years old.
There's still a ways to go, but Belcher's getting passing grades from Fiore for his progression in the mental aspect of the position.
"It's not a 7-on-7, it's not practice, it's competition," Fiore said. "It's game-planning, scheming up against teams, and he's doing a better job of reading the defense. I'd say that's where he's improved a lot. It's good, it's great."
READING 32, BURLINGTON 27
REA (2-3) 14 6 12 0 --- 32
BUR (3-2) 7 7 7 6 --- 27
R - Drew Belcher 1 run (kick blocked) 8:45
B - Anthony Cruz 10 pass from Shane Farley (Chris Arria kick) 4:51
R - Ryan Maney 31 pass from Belcher (Anthony DeSimone run) 3:39
R - Maney 17 pass from Belcher (kick failed) 4:44
B - Marcus Odiah 6 run (Arria kick) 1:03
R - Liam Kenneally 30 run (rush failed) 9:29
R - Jared Barros 24 pass from Belcher (pass failed) 2:02
B - Nick Ciardi 48 pass from Farley (Arria kick) 0:43.8
B - Ciardi 61 pass from Cruz (pass failed) 5:56