AYER -- If there is a bright side to take from Friday's night game for the Ayer-Shirley football team, it is that their new-look offense showed signs of life. The negative side of things is that offense is just one part of the game. Assabet Valley ran over, around, through and by the Panthers defense, racking up 471 of their 485 yards on the ground en route to a 44-34 nonleague victory.
"We got things going offensively, showed some rhythm and moved the ball efficiently," said Ayer-Shirley coach Jay Rivers. "Defensively, we couldn't get off the field and couldn't make one stop when we needed it. I feel like we will be able to score points on a consistent basis, but right now we can't stop anything defensively and that has to change quickly."
The Aztecs embarked on one of the strangest scoring drives ever to open the contest. Assabet Valley started at their own 34-yard line and needed 10 plays to score, but during the drive they committed five penalties for a total of 30 yards. They converted a third-and-17, moved the chains after facing first-and-30 and got 37 yards on the ground from Paul Harpin who capped off the eight-minute, 37-second march by going in from 17 yards out. Chris Schofield added the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
Over the next 5:51 of play, the teams combined for four touchdowns as things opened up quickly. The Panthers found paydirt on their first offensive play as Alex Walker raced 58 yards for a touchdown.
"I thought it was big for us to get a quick answer from Alex after their long first drive," said Rivers. "The problem was, we put a tired defense right back on the field and couldn't keep them off the scoreboard."
On the first drive of the second half, Ayer-Shirley drew within four with a quick score. Zak Walker keyed a 70-yard, four-play drive, running for 17 yards and passing for 38, including a 24-yard scoring strike to Justis Wallace. The PAT was good, making it 24-20.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Aztecs answered back with a six play, 44 yard march. Harpin carried three times with 15 yards, helping set up a Santo Frescola 14-yard jaunt off the left side that extended the Assabet Valley lead to 10 at 30-20 with 7:52 to play.
A Zak Walker 23-yard touchdown run was answered by a Kyle Fernandes 1-yard quarterback sneak that made it 36-26. The Panthers then came up with another scoring drive, this time covering 70 yards on seven plays. Zak Walker was the catalyst again, tallying 34 yards of offense, including the final eight on a screen pass to tight end Ryan Richard for a touchdown. Wallace caught a Zak Walker pass for the two-point conversion, cutting the lead to two at 36-34.
Needing to run out the clock to ensure victory, the Aztecs did themselves one better. Harpin capped off a monster night in fashion. The senior fullback, who finished the night with 332 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, did all the work himself on a four-play, 62-yard scoring drive, going in from 47 yards out for a score. Frescola added the two-point conversion to put the game on ice as Ayer-Shirley fell to 0-2 on the season.
"Zak played a strong game at quarterback and we got some good work out of our line," said Rivers. "I thought we did a nice job of mixing things up offensively and keeping them off balance. We just need to get better on defense, and we need to get better soon."
Leading the way for the Panthers offense was Zak Walker, who finished 10 of 18 for 180 yards and two touchdowns passing while adding 68 yards and a score on 10 carries. Alex Walker finished with 109 total yards (95 rushing, 14 receiving) and two scores. Wallace added six catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.