MARLBOROUGH, Mass. -- Hey, luck is where opportunity meets preparation, right?
Of course, how else are you going to explain 20 points off turnovers, which is what the No. 19 Nashoba Chieftains rode tonight to a 26-17 comeback victory over Marlborough at Kelleher Field that kept them undefeated at 5-0.
Nashoba came into the contest having not allowed a point in eight quarters. But it took all of two plays to erase that, with quarterback Mike Yates selling an option pitch hard as Paul Goulet (13 carries, 129 yards) took a dive handoff straight up the gut, 81 yards to paydirt.
But overshadowing a solid offensive performance by the Panthers (3-2) was their own undoing when it came to holding onto the ball. Nashoba's Brandon Steff tried to coffin-corner his first punt of the night, early in the second quarter, only to watch the Marlborough returner field the ball clumsily along the sideline. A Nashoba player landed on the loose ball, and Zach Arsenault plunged in from three yards out one play later to knot the score at 7.
Yates found tight end Michael Tirpak wide open in single-coverage down the right seam for a 39-yard touchdown and a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter ("We were in straight man coverage, the guy missed him, and he knew it as soon as it happened," Nashoba head coach Ken Tucker said). But that lead unraveled in the final four minutes.
Another well-placed Nashoba coffin corner gave the Panthers a starting drive at their own five with 4:20 left in the game. Yates fumbled the snap on the first play, and on the next play Nashoba linebacker Sam Ashline fell on a fumble in the end zone for the lead with 3:38 to go.
The Panthers coughed it up again on the first play of the ensuing drive, with Brady Schartner (8 catches, 97 yards) squaring up and slamming Austin Garvey (88 rushing yards) to the ground to prevent a clean option pitch and give Nashoba the ball at the Marlborough 22. Five plays later, Arsenault plunged in again from three yards out to make it 26-17.
Three plays into its next drive, the Panthers fumbled the ball away again on a waggle to the right sideline, and the Chieftains kneeled off the remainder of the clock.
"We won ugly," Tucker said. "Marlborough's a good football team, I said it to the kids all week. I thought they were the best team we were going to play up to this point. We've played a pretty tough schedule, but I really do think that they're a very good football team. They're well-coached, and they came out and gave us everything we could handle. I'll give our kids credit, we found a way to win."
Said Marlborough head coach Sean Mahoney, "We gave them a short field. Our defense, it looks like we gave up  points, but one was a kickoff return for a touchdown, and then the short fields. We take away a few mistakes...but you can't make those mistakes against a team like that."
Lightning and...Lightning: For the last several years, Mahoney has deployed a plethora of spread formations, both under center and out of the shotgun, sprinkled with misdirection out of the triple option. But unlike traditional triple-option attacks, the Panthers don't utilize a true power back, instead relying on a speedy dive back to hit the hole quick and the quarterback to sell the veer or option fake to the edge.
Combined, the two-horse tandem of Goulet and Garvey ran for 205 yards on a stingy Nashoba defense, beating them at the point of attack not with power or size, but deception.
"It's really tough to stop," Tucker said. "You ask younger kids and your backups a look in practice, and it's hard to simulate. Marlborough's offensive line really gets off the ball well, they take people down low, and it's a tough play to stop because it happens so quickly. And then they run the option off of it, which we did a pretty good job on, but we didn't do as good a job on the dive as we had hoped to."
Backchecking: The return of Ashline tonight gave the Chieftains a boost at inside linebacker (more on that in a second), but more than that the linebacking corps played the run well tonight. Junior Zack Hume (seven tackles) is turning out to be one of the premier Class of 2013 prospects in Massachusetts, and has received substantial interest from Big East schools such as UConn (NCAA rules prohibit schools from offering a scholarship in writing until the summer between junior and senior year, but let's just say the Huskies are very interested at this point).
"The defenses that we play, both Marlborough and us, are linebacker-predicated, and you've gotta have good ones," Tucker said. "Zack Hume is one of the best around, and we're fortunate that we had Sam Ashline back tonight. He's not back full-strength, but it's great to have him back."
True Grit, pt. I: Tucker said Ashline is "lucky to be back" and admitted he thought the senior captain might miss the whole season with a blood clot.
Ashline plays for the Chieftains' baseball squad during the spring time, and a combination of throwing and lifting may have led to the cause of the clot, which first had him on blood thinners before undergoing surgery on August 17 to remove a rib just below the right side of his collarbone.
He was cleared by doctors to work out three weeks ago, and only last week was cleared for contact. In last Saturday's win over Holy Name, the senior saw action in maybe a dozen plays. But tonight, even though he's still not 100 percent, he made some crucial stops, and most importantly fell on the winning touchdown ball.
"We need him, he's a great player," Tucker said. "Great story, too."
True Grit, pt. II: Panther linemen Steve Randall and Chris Cook both played with broken hands, with a cast covering everything from the mid-forearm down. The good news, as Mahoney joked, is they couldn't hold anybody.
The Panthers dress close to four dozen for their varsity contests, but realistically about 15 or 16 see major time both ways, including Randall and Cook tonight.
"The kids we have playing are pretty tough kids," Mahoney said. "They want to play football, and they're fighting through injuries. They get a cast, they're padded up, and they go out there and play great."
Asked if it's tough telling a kid "No" when they're willing to go to the lengths of Randall and Cook, Mahoney pointed out that they've been cleared by doctors.
"They're football players," he said, smiling. "Football players are a little crazy...and we've got enough of those."
NASHOBA 26, MARLBOROUGH 17
NSH (5-0) 0 7 6 13 --- 26
MAR (3-2) 7 3 7 0 --- 17
M - Paul Goulet 81 run (Alex Tello kick) 10:01
N - Zach Arsenault 3 run (Brandon Steff kick) 6:59
M - Tello 38 field goal
N - John Ojukwu 90 kickoff return (kick failed) 10:45
M - Michael Tirpak 39 pass from Mike Yakes (Tello kick) 6:29
N - Sam Ashline 0 fumble recovery (rush failed) 3:38
N - Arsenault 3 run (Steff kick) 2:03