GROTON - In the brief history of the Groton-Dunstable football program, there might not be a more memorable game then what took place on Friday night. An electric crowd, a playoff feel and two quality teams combined to produce one of the best games of the 2012 season in all of Central Massachusetts.
In the end, a well-designed trick play and the overall dominance of Matt Manning proved to be the difference as the Crusaders claimed a 29-27 victory over visiting Gardner to improve to 8-1 on the season.
A reverse with the option of a pass was run into the end zone by Quinton Forbes for a two-point conversion after a Manning touchdown in the extra period, while the Wildcats' conversion attempt after a score came up a yard short.
But it was the play of Manning that was the key to getting to that point. The senior fullback/linebacker etched his name into Crusaders lore with a three-touchdown night on offense while making a school-record 27 tackles on the defensive side of the ball.
"Matt played an outstanding game all-around and I really can't state what a difference he made tonight. He was all over the place and made every play we needed on a night where every play counted," Groton-Dunstable coach Derek Asadoorian said.
"As for the conversion play, it is something we had saved for a special occasion. Quinton has the option to pass on the play, but he saw a lot of green in front of him and ran it in. We executed the play very well and it was a great play by everyone involved, from Mack Eberhardt selling it to the line blocking. What a great game to be a part of tonight."
After forcing a punt on the opening possession, the Crusaders were given great field position courtesy of a 17-yard return by Forbes, in addition to a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Starting just 43 yards from the end zone, Groton-Dunstable needed just two plays to get on the board as Eberhardt picked up 31 on an option keeper with six yards added for a face mask. On the next play, Manning (13 carries for 60 yards) took a hand-off and went in from six yards out. Corey Romich added the extra point to make it 7-0 just over four minutes into the game.
Gardner answered back with a time-consuming scoring march. The Wildcats chewed up over six minutes on 11 plays, converting a fourth-and-inches and third-and-11 to keep the drive alive. Facing fourth-and-four from the 26, Andy Guay could not find an open receiver, so he took off, making a pair of jukes on his way to a 26-yard scoring run. Peter Gallant added the extra point to knot the game at 7-7.
Midway through the second quarter, Gardner took the lead for the first time on the night with an eight-play, 85-yard scoring drive. Guay was the catalyst, connecting on both of his passes for a total of 60 yards, including a 24-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Andy Gallant on a seam route. The PAT was good to make it a seven-point game.
On the ensuing possession, the Crusaders responded in just four plays. Eberhardt connected with Drew Moore on a 33-yard pass to move the ball down to the 15-yard line. Manning then broke off a 14-yard run to set up first-and-goal from the one. On the next play, Manning capped things off by going in untouched off the left end for a touchdown. Romich's kick was good as the teams were tied at 14-all heading into the half.
The Wildcats regained the lead on their first possession of the third quarter. A 12-play, 76-yard drive was highlighted by the running of Peter Gallant (four carries for 34 yards) and a 19-yard pass by Guay to Jamison Kelley. On first-and-goal from the three, Brandon Williams capped things off by going in off the right side for a score. Peter Gallant's kick was true, making it 21-14.
Eberhardt spearheaded Groton-Dunstable's ensuing drive for the equalizing touchdown. The junior quarterback accounted for 42 of his team's 55 yards, including a key six-yard completion on fourth-and-four from the 16 for a first down. On second-and-goal from the five, Eberhardt (12 rushes for 62 yards, 59 yards passing) called his own number, going in from five yards out on a draw play. Romich's PAT was good, making it 21-21 with 6:22 to go in regulation.
Drew Moore came up with a big defensive play on the next drive for the Crusaders, picking off a third-down pass to end a threat. On the final play of the fourth quarter, Guay connected with Ken Correa for a 28-yard gain down to the Crusaders' 22 as the game would head to overtime.
It took just two plays for Groton-Dunstable to regain the lead. After an Eberhardt two-yard run, he dropped a screen pass of to Manning, who made an outstanding catch, before finding his blockers and easing into the end zone. Forbes added the conversion run, leaping over the goal line to make it 29-21.
Needing a score to stay alive, the Wildcats went to the wildcat formation to find the end zone. Williams picked up three yards on first down before breaking a run off the right side for a seven-yard scoring run. On the all important conversion attempt, Guay connected on a pass to Correa on the right side, but it came up just a yard short as Groton-Dunstable held on for the two-point win to stay perfect in Mid-Wach C play.
"In the end, we made a few more plays than they did," Asadoorian said. "Give Gardner credit, they gave us everything they could and we knew they would. They are a great team, but tonight we were just a little bit better in the end. Mack controlled the offense and Drew came up with two big interceptions. We have been working hard throughout the year and we keep getting kids to step up when we need it the most. Tonight is a big win for us, but now we have to turn our attention to Lunenburg."