SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- Mike Pucko sat on the bench next to one of his linebackers, who was sobbing softly with his left knee heavily wrapped in ice, and watched as the paramedics lifted him onto a stretcher.
By this point, Pioneer Field had cleared out, and the Holy Name coach was once again left with nothing but a long, deflated sigh that shouted, Just what do I have to do to beat these guys?
Under Pucko, the Naps have become something of folklore with their less-is-more modus operandi, playing a Division 1 schedule with essentially a Division 4 student body. They've rolled into this annual season-opener with rival St. John's of Shrewsbury carrying a little over two dozen of the toughest kids in Worcester, and have come at them with pretty much everything but the kitchen sink.
For all of the Super Bowl championship success under Pucko, the Naps haven't been able to get an elusive victory over St. John's under John Andreoli. In recent years, the Naps have lost 9-8 and 22-21 to the Pioneers. Today, it was a recovered fumble by St. John's Sam Norton with under four minutes left that did the Naps in, as the Pioneers eked out a 47-40 shootout victory in which neither defense was able to contain the other's running back.
Of his own Lilliputian scatback, Quron Wright, Pucko was asked about the career day of the waterbug generously listed at 5-foot-7, and without initiation fired one of his trademark shots from the hip.
"Anybody that thinks he's too short to play college football can kiss my a--," Pucko said of Wright, who finished the day with a career-best 282 yards on 28 carries for four touchdowns. “He showed what he can do against any competition, any time."
When he was done talking, for good measure, Pucko brisked by Wright and slammed his open palm on the senior's right shoulder pad.
Between Wright and St. John's senior tailback Shadrach Abrokwah (24 carries, 205 yards, 3 TD), this was a must-see clinic for rushing, albeit in styles at opposite ends of the spectrum -- Wright the patient breaks behind sweeping convoys in the Double Wing, Abrokwah the darting cutbacks in an uptempo Inside Zone Read scheme.
The best story of the day, however, might have on the other side of the ball, where Andrew Smiley stepped in for the injured Connor Kurtz in his first varsity start and promptly accumulated 353 yards of offense (226 passing, 127 rushing) and four touchdowns (three passing). The 6-foot-3 junior connected with wideout Micah Cummins for two of his passing touchdowns, the second a soft goal line fade to the back pylon early in the fourth quarter that rounded out the wild scoring.
"I was rolling out, and I saw the corner jump the under route," Smiley said of his second scoring strike to Cummins. “I saw a little window, tried to fit it in, and Micah made a nice play.”
After pounding the ball in between the tackles all afternoon, routinely drawing nine Pioneer defenders into the box, Naps quarterback Shamus Malley caught the secondary sleeping for a wide-open 41-yard scoring strike to tight end Robert Baker. The pass, a play-action post with Baker slipping behind the safeties, was his only completion of the day, and cut the Pioneers’ lead to 41-40 with 8:06 to go.
St. John’s fired right back with a seven-play, 62-yard scoring drive marching through the middle of the Naps’ defense with a series of zone read plays. Smiley finished the drive with his rollout floater to Cummins.
Five plays into the ensuing Holy Name drive, the ball was fumbled near the line of scrimmage, and sophomore defensive tackle Sam Norton was there to fall on it and give the Pioneers the ball back with under four minutes to go. St. John’s effectively ran out the clock with steady inside zone plays to Abrokwah.
“We thought we could have won 48-47,” Pucko said. “We were starting to drive again, the kids were sucking it up even though they all had cramps, they were giving everything to stay out there…But hey, what are you going to do?”
The Pioneers totaled 558 yards of offense, while Holy Name amassed 504 yards –- 463 of it coming on the ground –- giving the teams over 1,050 yards for the day.
Read to Achieve: Pucko plays scout team quarterback each week in practice – “I can look into kids’ eyes and know where our problems are,” he explained – and this week he felt they were able to defend it sufficiently.
Clearly, that was easier said than done. The Pioneers are going with an Oregon-like “blur” tempo this year, a spread-based option look aimed at snapping the ball in less than 20 seconds, and the most effective staple of Andreoli’s game plan today was the inside zone read.
Abrokwah chose his cutbacks wisely and used his superior lower-body strength to brush through the second level. But they were at their most effective when a Holy Name defensive end crashed, forcing Smiley to call his own number. That’s because the middle of the field was usually wide open.
Not bad for his first varsity start under center. It was evident this afternoon how much time Smiley and Abrokwah have put into selling the fake.
“We stay on them all the time about it,” Andreoli said. “Every drill we do about carrying out the fakes, because what happens is it’s like a block, really. Even if you don’t pull the ball as a quarterback, but you carry out the fake, you might freeze a high safety, and that’s the difference between a guy making the play on the backside and not.
“If you can get them to carry out their fakes, and then they pull it, they [the defense] have to respect that. And he [Smiley] has the kind of speed that when he pulls it, he’s got a one-on-one, and he runs pretty good. So, that helped us today.”
The Wright Stuff: At this point, Pucko is clearly ticked at the lack of attention from college coaches towards Wright, who is now roughly 1,000 yards from breaking the school’s all-time rushing yardage record held by former UMass tight end Emil Igwenagu (who himself was one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ final cuts this preseason).
Generously listed at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, there are obvious questions about whether his frame would be able to take on the level of physicality demonstrated in Division 1.
To put his frustration in perspective, Pucko brought up one of the greatest running backs to ever come through Massachusetts. He coached Joe Morris as an assistant at Ayer High in the late 70’s, and recalls how tough it was to get the 5-foot-7 fire hydrant his due diligence, even from Pucko's alma mater UConn. Morris went on to endure an All-American career at Syracuse, before winning a Super Bowl with the New York Giants and appearing in two Pro Bowls.
“He gives 100 percent all the time, and if they think height is an issue, watch our game films and watch him tear people up all the time,” Pucko said of Wright. “[He’s been doing this] all his career, and I can’t get anybody to chase me down.
“We’ll get it, we’ll get it. Somebody’s finally gonna realize they’re an idiot and make a move on him, like with Joe Morris. I lost that fight with UConn, my alma mater wouldn’t take him, he ends up doing all that and his whole career. I guarantee that’s going to happen with Quron.”
ST. JOHN’S (SHREWSBURY) 47, HOLY NAME 40
HN (0-1) 6 14 12 8 --- 40
SJ (1-0) 14 6 14 13 --- 47
S – Shadrach Abrokwah 57 run (Micah Cummins pass from Andrew Smiley) 10:39
H – Quron Wright 10 run (rush failed) 4:39
S – Abrokwah 16 run (rush failed) 2:51
H – Wright 5 run (rush failed) 7:07
S – Cummins 75 pass from Smiley (rush failed) 6:07
H – Jeff Holland 4 run (Holland rush) 1:25
S – Smiley 23 run (Abrokwah rush) 7:38
H – Wright 65 run (pass failed) 7:21
S – T.J. Kelley 7 pass from Smiley (kick failed)
H – Wright 9 run (rush failed) :30
S – Abrokwah 6 run (Pat Lehane kick) 10:48
H – Robert Baker 41 pass from Shamus Malley (Wright rush) 8:06
S – Cummins 11 pass from Smiley (kick failed) 6:17