(Highlights courtesy of James Walsh and the Needham Channel.)
MANSFIELD, Mass. -- Clinging to a 21-14 lead over Mansfield in the final minute, the Needham defense was put to the test and passed with flying colors.
Two possessions after a 20-yard touchdown by Mikey Panepinto put the Rockets in front, the Hornets started a drive on their own 29-yard line with 2:56 left in the game. Quarterback Kyle Wisnieski hit wideout Brendan Hill for a 27-yard pickup on the first play, then guided his team all the way down to Needham's 18.
In a game in which both defenses bent a bit but neither never really broke, it was winning time for either side. Needham produced an effective pass rush and covered the Hornets talented receivers well enough to force three incompletions in four plays, the final one coming on fourth-and-4 from the Rockets 12.
It was a game-deciding stop, as Needham quarterback Ryan Charter took a knee and the 21st-ranked Rockets held on for a 21-14 victory over No. 20 Mansfield Friday night at Alumni Field.
"We knew we had to play tough and we knew we had to play smart," Needham head coach Dave Duffy said. "You're not going to beat these guys if you dont do that. I thought we played tough. I thought the offensive and defensive lines played tough. Last year they kind of rolled it up on us and our defensive line and linebackers didn't have a very good game but this year they played much better. That offense is tricky so you just have to protect your gaps and tackle good."
Mansfield (1-1) opened the scoring in the first quarter thanks to a big play by running back Kevin Makie, who broke loose for a 72-yrd run from his own 19 all the way to the Rockets nine. Four plays later, the Hornets attempted a field goal but the snap went too high. As Wisnieski pulled it down, kicker Mike Hershman instantly raced upfield and Wisnieski hit him for a five-yard scoring pass.
Needham fumbled on its next possession, but forced a Mansfield punt and put together a 18-play, 93-yard march, highlighted by a 33-yrd pass from Charter (15-for-23, 165 yards) to Mike Elcock on 3rd-and-11 at its own six, and a 24-yard scamper by Nico Panepinto. After grinding into the red zone, Panepinto blasted through from the one to tie it at 7-7.
The Rockets started the second half the way they ended the first, this time driving 69 yards on 14 plays. Charter had a pair of big throws on this one, hitting Elcock (3 catches, 74 yards) again for 30 yards and Matt McGloin for 18. After a Mansfield penalty, Panepinto busted in again from the one and Needham took a 14-7 advantage.
The Hornets went three-and-out on their next possession, but Mike Hershman came up with a big interception, setting up a 64-yard scoring run by Robbie Rapoza on the next play.
The turnover bug came right back to sting the Hornets, however, as Timmy McCarthy sacked Wisnieski and forced a fumble that was recovered by Mike Manigault at Mansfield's 31. Three plays later, Panepinto rolled in from the 20 with the go-ahead score.
"It seemed like both our turnovers were in our own end," lamented Mansfield coach Mike Redding. "At one point we had tied it, we got the ball on a nice kick return on their 40 and its third and long and we’re looking at punting. Instead we fumble and it's first and ten at our 40 when it was just on their 40. That was a big turnaround field position wise and led to their touchdown."
Mikey Panepinto was coming off a game in which he rolled up 181 yards on just eight carries against Norwood. The sledding would prove much tougher against a stout Mansfield defense, but the junior showed he could get the tough yards too.
In all, Panepinto finished with 99 yards on 24 carries and scored all three of the Rockets' touchdowns on a pair of plunges from the one and a 20-yarder early in the fourth that held up as the game-winner. He also added 26 yards on two catches.
"Our offensive line played great and stuck in there," Mikey Panepinto said. "We were really tough the whole game and we just grinded it out. It was a great feeling."
When asked what helped him have success, he simply pointed to his teammates and said, "It was mostly just some open holes from the offensive line. I thought they did great setting me up for that."
Duffy was a but more effusive in his praise for his UMass-bound (lacrosse) running back.
"Mikey was ready to play. I didn’t think he could do better than last week but against this defense he did just as well if not better," said Duffy. "This defense is much better and he was making yards left and right when there wasn't much there. These guys are good tacklers so to make them miss is quite the feat."
NEEDHAM (2-0) 0 7 7 7 - 21
MANSFIELD (1-1) 7 0 7 0 - 14
MA - Mike Hershman 5 pass from Kyle Wisnieski (Hershman kick)
NE - Mikey Panepinto 1 run (Brendan Brady kick)
NE - Panepinto 1 run (Brady kick)
MA - Robbie Rapoza 64 run (Hershman kick)
NE - Panepinto 20 run (Brady kick)