EXETER, N.H. -- With less than 10 minutes remaining and down by five points, Phillips Academy-Andover was on the cusp of not only seeing its unbeaten record come to an end, but a potential NEPSAC Division A bowl berth be dismantled.
With a rushing offense that was averaging 245.4 yards-per-game, the Big Blue ground attack was in virtual lock down against a vigilant Phillips Exeter Academy defense. It was at that point when Andover head coach Leon Modeste decided to scrap the spread offense for a more-traditional power attack.
Inserting fullback Michael Moore as a lead blocker for tailback Ryder Stone, the Big Blue began their final possession at their own 11. The newfound strategy started to work as Andover started to make some headway down field. The Big Blue chewed up over eight minutes off the clock and marched 87 yards before Stone ran off-tackle to his left for a 6-yard touchdown with 31 seconds remaining to propel Andover to a gut-wrenching 13-12 victory this afternoon at 85 year-old Phelps Stadium.
It was the 133rd meeting of the nation's longest and, perhaps greatest, prep school rivalry. The Big Blue now holds a 69-54-10 advantage in the series, which began in 1878.
With the win, Andover (8-0) wraps up the NEPSAC Freelance Division and will play in a NEPSAC Division A bowl next Saturday. The opponent, site and time of the game will be determined tomorrow.
It marks the first time the Big Blue will play in a postseason contest since 2007, when it lost to Trinity-Pawling School (N.Y.).
"It's been a while since we beat them and it is really sweet to cap off an undefeated season," said Modeste, whose club had lost the previous five meetings to the Big Red. "We were running the spread but it wasn't working. On that last drive we decided to go to a different set by putting a fullback in, have him clear a path, and just pound the ball.
“Mike [Moore] is a very-inspirational runner for us and they couldn't just key on Ryder [Stone] any longer. It now gave us two options in the backfield to go with. We were able to run some counters and that was a big difference. You'd like to win by four or five touchdowns but that's not going to happen in this rivalry against a great Exeter club. This win will go down in the lore of this wonderful rivalry."
On that game-winning drive, Stone and Moore were beginning to find seams to cut through and, in the process, keep the chains moving. With 51 seconds showing on the clock, Andover faced a fourth-and-4 at the Exeter 15. Senior quarterback Ian Maag hit wide receiver Brandon Michel for a 5-yard reception and keep the Big Blue offense on the field. Two plays later, Stone, a workman-like back from Calgary, Alberta, took a handoff and darted around left end barely getting over the goal line for the winning score.
"I was struggling the whole game," said Stone, a senior who finished with 80 tough yards on 23 carries. "At the end we all came together. We just went though and executed. We didn't have to say anything on that final drive. We just looked at each other and knew it could happen. This group of guys have been great. We have weapons everywhere. There are no weak spots on this team."
The Big Red (6-2, losing their final two games) did mount a mini-rally after getting the ball back. Exeter was trying to get the ball in position to set up a possible game-winning field goal attempt. Reaching the Andover 38, quarterback Vin Sansone, in desperation mode, had his pass picked off by defensive back Alec Tolentino to close the deal for the Big Blue.
Throughout this contest, the Big Blue struggled to live up to its offensive potential. The Big Red defense took on the challenge and executed it brilliantly. Andover finished with just 165 yards, including 94 in the opening half. Likewise, however, the Big Blue's defense was equally instrumental in this triumph. Exeter encountered its share of difficulty trying to gain positive yardage. The Big Red did finish with 206 yards, led by senior running back, and former Brockton High standout, Austin Roberts (68 yards on 19 attempts).
With 1:12 left in the first quarter, Exeter jumped out to a 6-0 lead on Sansone's 2-yard push over the goal line. But back came the Big Blue. Moving the ball 81 yards, with a mix of run and pass, Maag (8-of-17, 46 yards), a Marblehead native, closed out the drive with a 1-yard dive over the goal line. Tom Mullen's PAT put Andover on top, 7-6, with 7:01 remaining before halftime.
Things stayed that way until midway through the third quarter. After the Big Blue went four-and-out on their first possession to begin the second half, the Big Red, behind the hard-running of Roberts, marched 45 yards before Roberts capped the drive off with a 7-yard scamper into the end zone to make it 12-7. Both teams failed to move the ball on its next two possessions before Andover was finally able to convert on its most-productive drive of the season which led to its clinching score.
"Our kids emptied their tanks today," first-year Exeter head coach Rob Morris said. "Sometime you play terribly and you still come out on top and sometimes you play your heart out, everything clicks, but the other team gets the win. Our kids can be proud that they played that way.
“Coming into this game we knew their strength was our strength and that was running the football. We both slugged it out. Unfortunately they just had one more punch than we had."