MARLBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was more than just your run-of-the-mill high school football game.
For Marlborough, it was a chance to make believers out of naysayers. The Panthers came into Friday's contest against rival Nashoba Regional spotless, having won its first four games of the season.
On the surface, that might seem impressive, but upon further review, the opponents Marlborough had defeated entering Friday’s action were a combined 3-13. Facing the Chieftains at historic Kellerher Field represented the first true litmus test of the season for this group. How they would stack up against a worthy opponent was anyone's guess.
Nashoba, like Marlborough, also had something to prove on this crisp autumn evening. The Chieftains' school-record of 29 consecutive victories was snapped a week ago against St. John's (Shrewsbury). Having not lost a game since 2010, first-year head coach Jamie Tucker spoke prior to kickoff that it was time for his team to deal with it and move on.
Following Marlborough's gut-check 28-24 victory, both teams proved their mettle in a number of ways. The Panthers, who last defeated the Chieftains in 2005, erased an 11-point deficit heading into the final quarter. A 28-yard touchdown pass from John Rumney to Jose Caquias was followed by a Leo Coelho conversion reception that left Marlborough trailing by only three points, 24-21, with just under nine minutes to go.
On the Chieftains' next series, it appeared they would go up by two scores again after driving 63 yards. Facing a fourth-and-goal inside the 5-yard line, the Panther defense stiffened and stopped Nashoba at the 1, taking over possession.
With momentum now clearly in Marlborough's favor, Rumney (18-of-31, 256 yards, 3 TD) directed the Panthers downfield. A crucial first down completion by senior receiver Matt Thall on fourth-and-10 allowed the drive to continue. Seven plays later, Rumney hit Thall again, this time on a slant pattern in the end zone with 1:08 remaining, to give Marlborough (5-0) the lead for good.
"Our defense made a huge stop on their drive," said Thall, who finished with eight catches for 114 yards. "We got the ball back and drove the length of the field to win it. Certainly, this is our first signature win of the season. We beat all the teams we were suppose to beat and tonight this was a real test for us and were able to come out on top. We have a lot of things going for us right now."
The conclusion to this game did not come without some edge-of-your-seat dramatics.
Nashoba (3-2) showed tremendous grit in staging a final comeback bid following the Panther touchdown. Senior quarterback Matt Mudgett (180 yards on 13 of 19 attempts, TD) completed five passes as part of a 63-yard drive, getting the ball to the Panther 13 with less than 10 seconds to go. But solid man-to-man defense forced Mudgett to sail his final two passes out of the end zone.
"Any loss is tough," said Tucker, after his team finished with 383 yards offensively. "We played hard but Marlborough made a few more plays and that was the difference in the game. That last drive was a huge test of character for us.
“They had that long drive for the touchdown and it's hard to fight back from that which we did. But unfortunately we weren't able to put the ball into the end zone. Matt Mudgett played tremendous for us tonight. He stood in there and took a lot of hits. I cannot say enough about him. He just played great."
Marlborough, which accumulated 376 yards of offense, wasted little time grabbing the lead in this one. Just two plays in, Rumney tossed an out-pass to Caquias, who darted down the left sideline 63 yards to put the Panthers on top 6-0.
Drew Korn's 31-yard field goal midway through the opening quarter put Nashoba on the board, trailing 6-3. Senior running back Matt Sabourin's 24-yard scoring scamper up the middle with 3:57 still remaining in the quarter then pushed the Chieftains ahead 10-6.
Sabourin led Nashoba's ground game with 105 yards on 14 attempts.
Marlborough moved back ahead with 6:05 left before halftime.
A 33-yard catch by Thall set up William Cowdrey's 1-yard scoring run. Cowdrey, a junior, carried the ball 19 times for 108 yards. The offensive fireworks continued. A blocked punt from Nashoba's Nick Tavis led to Mudgett's 51-yard strike to receiver Kevin Connelly in the closing minutes to send Nashoba into the break leading 17-13.
The Chieftains' momentum carried over into the third quarter.
An Eli Williams interception at the goal line, following a sustained Panther drive, allowed Nashoba to dodge a major bullet. After the pick, the Chieftains proceeded to march 68 yards before Frankie Chiodo blasted into the end zone from 13 yards out, putting Nashoba in command at 24-13.
"This was a one play game throughout for both teams," Panthers coach Sean Mahoney said. "Marlborough and Nashoba have had some tremendous games through the years and this is just another one.
“Even though Nashoba scored 24 points, I still felt our defense played well. We hadn't been very good defensively, but tonight we were good when we had to be. Offensively, nothing fazes these kids. They just go out and keep making plays."