ASHBURNHAM — As Groton-Dunstable football coach Derek Asadoorian prepared his game plan for Friday night’s showdown at Oakmont, one thought stuck in his mind: ball control. The third-year coach knew in order for the Crusaders to win, they would have to control the clock and play keep-away.
Groton-Dunstable did just that, controlling the ball for 32:42 of the 44 minutes, embarking on long drives that usually ended with points. And yet it still came down to a defensive stop as the Spartans were turned away just 10 yards short of the end zone on a late drive for the tying score as the Crusaders held on for a gutsy 26-20 win to improve to 6-4 on the season.
“We knew coming in just how dangerous Oakmont’s offense was and it was our goal to keep them off the field as much as possible,” said Asadoorian. “I thought the offense did a great job of constantly moving the ball. We had some turnovers that hurt us, but we had long drives throughout the night. Our defense was fresh at the end and came up with a couple of big plays. It was a total team effort, which is what we need to be successful.”
Keying the offense was the three-headed attack of Ryan Vultaggio, Shane Penney and Riley Baxter. On the night, Vultaggio carried 28 times for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns while connecting on four of his six passes for 59 yards and a score. Penney picked up the tough yards up the middle, rushing 14 times for 55 yards, catching a pass for 23 yards and throwing a 49-yard scoring pass on an option play. Baxter carried eight times for 33 yards while adding two receptions for 13 yards and a TD.
“Ryan is exceeding all expectations at this point,” said Asadoorian. “We run a very complex system and the job he has done in picking it up is really outstanding. Shane was a battering ram out there tonight and came up with that huge pass on the halfback option play, and Riley played a strong game all-around. Our skill guys really picked it up on offense tonight.”
The Spartans quick-strike offense was on display late in the first quarter as they drew first blood. Starting on their own 36, Oakmont needed just one play to find the end zone as quarterback Luke Bakanowsky hit Zach Comeau on a quick slant that ended up covering 64 yards for a score. Jason Shell added the PAT to make it a 7-0 contest.
Groton-Dunstable responded with a six play, 59-yard drive to get on the board. Behind the blocking of Ryan Dawson, Erik Rasku, James Gresock, Phillip Dubay and Brad Ursprung, the Crusaders backs were given large holes to run through. Baxter carried twice for 20 yards on the drive while Vultaggio picked up 26 yards on two rushes, including a six-yard option keeper for a touchdown. The kick was no good, but it was now 7-6.
On the ensuing possession, it took the Spartans twice as long to find the end zone as they needed two plays to add to their lead. On second-and-10 from their own 32, Bakanowsky threw a quick flare in the flat to Tyler Osborn, who found a seam and raced 68 yards for a score. Shell’s kick was true as Oakmont’s lead was now 14-6.
Asadoorian reached into his bag of tricks to draw within two on Groton-Dunstable’s next drive. On second-and-12, Penney took a toss to the right and pulled up to throw. The pass found a wide open Anthony Cotoni, who covered 49 yards to cap off a five play, 59-yard march. The conversion failed, but it was now 14-12 with 6:48 to play in the opening half.
A golden opportunity went by the boards late in the second quarter for the Crusaders. Starting at their own 27, Groton-Dunstable quickly moved down field thanks to runs of 19, 11, 8 and 11 and 13 by Vultaggio. On second-and-goal from the eight, a pass out of the Wildcat formation was called, but it was picked off in the end zone as it was a 14-12 game heading into the intermission.
To open the third quarter, the Spartans put together a more conventional scoring drive. Oakmont went 57 yards on seven plays, highlighted by a 25-yard pass from Bakanowsky and 18 yards rushing from Osborn. On second-and-goal from the four, Jackson Sheehan took a hand-off up the middle and didn’t stop till he found pay dirt. The kick was no good, but the lead was now 20-12.
Needing an answer, the Crusaders embarked on its longest drive of the night. Starting at its own 26, Groton-Dunstable used the legs of Vultaggio (46 yards) and Penney (18 yards) to move down to the Spartans’ 6. Facing fourth-and-goal, the call was a pass and Vultaggio rolled right before lofting a pass over a defender’s outstretched arms and into the hands of Baxter for a touchdown. A well-designed counter play allowed Baxter to find the end zone on the conversion as the game was now tied 20-20.
Asadoorian kept everyone guessing with a surprise onside kick on the ensuing kick-off and Penney recovered it. The Crusaders moved down the field as Vultaggio passed for 23 yards and ran for 13, but the drive stalled and Oakmont regained possession.
A three-and-out was forced by the Groton-Dunstable defense and the special teams came up with a big play as Penney blocked the punt and Matt McKay recovered the loose ball after it hit a Crusader at the Oakmont’ 27 yard line. A six-play drive resulted in the game-winning score. Penney ran twice for 17 yards while Vultaggio converted a key third-and-three with a five-yard run. On first-and-goal from the two, Vultaggio called his own number, sneaking in for a score. The conversion failed, and it was 26-20 with 1:24 left.
An onside kick was attempted again, but the Spartans recovered this time, leaving them 52 yards short of a tying score. Bakanowsky completed three passes for 29 yards and also scrambled for 15 yards to set up a third-and-four from the 13. Bakanowsky dropped back to pass and had a receiver open in the end zone, but Nick Longo came out of nowhere to make a great diving break-up of the pass. On the next play, Bakanowsky tried to scramble for a first, but was stopped by a group of Groton-Dunstable players two yards short as the ball was turned over on downs.
“Longo’s play in the end zone was absolutely amazing,” said Asadoorian. “That play pretty much locked up the win for us. We got great work from the offensive line tonight; they opened up holes all night. This win is so big for us. Nobody thought we would be in the position we are in right now. We can enjoy this win for a little bit, but then it is back to work getting ready for Tyngsboro.”