DUDLEY — Most football coaches will insist the path to victory is with ball control. On Friday night, Groton-Dunstable proved that big plays have the ability to trump ball control as they relied on them to post a 26-19 win in the season opener for both teams.

The first half was the ultimate study in contrasts as Shepherd Hill’s ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ offense matched up with Groton-Dunstable’s big play offense. Groton-Dunstable had the ball for only ten offensive plays, but two of them were long touchdown runs by quarterback Ryan Romich. He put the Crusaders on top 6-0 with a 70-yard jaunt. After Shepherd Hill drove 75 yards on nine plays, capped by a two yard run by Brett Anctill which tied the score, Romich regained the lead with a 38-yard burst.

The Groton-Dunstable defense stood up on Shepherd Hill’s next possession, getting strong defensive plays from Romich and Jack Schafer in forcing a punt.

Later in the second quarter, the Crusaders fumbled and the Rams took advantage and tied the game. Shepherd Hill rolled 63 yards in six plays, capped by a nine-yard pass from Anthony Preissler to Anctill for the equalizer.

It could have been worse for Groton-Dunstable as Shepherd Hill ran 29 offensive plays in the half and picked up 154 yards on the ground.

“We had Ryan’s two big plays in the first half, but they had the ball for most of the rest of the half,” said Groton-Dunstable head coach Derek Asadoorian. “We knew we had to control the ball more in the second half.”

The Crusaders came out and put the ball in the hands of halfback Dan Eipp on the first five plays of the second half, and the quick senior picked up 37 yards and moved the sticks twice. After fullback Marco diGrazia rumbled for 10 yards and first down to the Shepherd Hill four yard line, a costly fumble stopped the drive.

But the Crusaders defense dug in. Schafer made a first down stop, Eipp and Cody Manley combined on a second down stop, before diGrazia and Brad Ursprung team up for a stop on third down, forcing a punt from the end zone. Disaster struck Shepherd Hill and the snap was dropped, and Groton-Dunstable’s Jimmy McLean outfought a number of players to recover the ball for a touchdown. The PAT was missed, but Groton-Dunstable led 18-12 with 5:13 left in the third quarter.

For the second consecutive series, the Groton-Dunstable defense rose up and forced a three-and-out, getting solid work from Romich, Schafer, Cam Willcox and Andrew Scire.

After taking over at the Shepherd Hill 45-yard line, the Crusaders gained some breathing room with a sustained drive, keyed by the offensive line of Geoff Mueller, Bill Li, Scire, Willcox and Schafer. diGrazia had a pair of runs for first downs, and Romich connected with Eipp for nine yards to move the sticks. Eipp finished off the nearly seven minute drive by scoring from two yards out. When Eipp tacked on the conversion rush, the Crusaders led 26-12 with 7:01 remaining, allowing them to survive a late Shepherd Hill touchdown.

Romich finished with 123 yards rushing on eight carries while Eipp added 70 yards on 13 carries.

‘We came out and did a much better job defensively in the second half,” said Asadoorian.