MILTON — Steve Dembowski told his team after Milton's 22-14 win over Needham that "it wasn't perfect."
Far from it, on either side. There were dropped passes, fumbles, interceptions, and special teams miscues. The offensive shootout that many predicted never really materialized.
However, Dembowski's Wildcats made enough timely plays, and survived a monumental effort from Needham tight end/wide receiver Matthew Smith, to quell a fourth quarter comeback and improve to 5-1.
The loss drops Needham to 5-1, and one could not help but get the feeling that these two evenly-matched teams could play each other 10 times and split the difference.
"Just a great game," Dembowski said. "(Needham coach) Doug (Kopcso) has done an unbelievable job in his first year (as Rockets head coach). They obviously have great weapons. Both teams made mistakes, and there was a lot of pressure and stuff like that, but we were able to hold the fort in the end. That was the most important thing."
Holding the fort was the right way to put it, as Milton somehow kept Needham out of the end zone despite the visitors getting a first-and-goal situation in the final minutes. Down eight points, Needham made it to the Milton 6-yard line before a penalty brought it back to the 11. After a 4-yard loss by running back Tyler Reid on first down followed by an 8-yard completion to Smith, Needham's Charlie Ogletree threw an incompletion on third and goal from the 7.
That left one last shot, and Ogletree's pass was a bit too far out of the back of the end zone for Smith, a verbal commit to Duke, who finished with 10 receptions for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
"The final play, it was pretty obvious where they were going to go with the ball, and (Milton defensive back) Ja'mier Woods (had coverage), and Smith Charles got over there as well," Dembowski said.
The two offensive touchdowns for Milton came from Isaiah Woodley, who caught scoring tosses from Luke McMenamin for 54 yards in the first quarter and 44 yards in the fourth, the latter extending the Wildcats' lead to 22-14 moments after the Rockets cut their deficit to two points.
"I had (a lot) of confidence (in the defense to make the last stop), but I also knew that sometimes 'O' is better than 'D,' and if they throw it up to their best receiver, it's 50-50," Woodley said. "(Smith)'s a hell of a player. He's going to Duke, so he's obviously good for a reason. Throw it up to him, he's going to get it. He had an unbelievable, like, 74-yard touchdown? Just unbelievable. Just can't teach that. That's just pure talent, so props to him."
It did look, initially, like that shootout was going to happen, as McMenamin (13-of-24 passing for 157 yards and two touchdowns) hit a wide-open Woodley for the 54-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage.
On Needham's second possession, Ogletree (22-of-40 passing for 323 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions) tossed a nice, back-shoulder fade to Smith for a 4-yard score that helped give the Rockets a 7-6 lead with 2:03 to play in the first quarter.
Neither team could gain much of a foothold until the second half, where the game opened up a bit.
On Needham's first drive of the half, the Rockets went for it on fourth-and-7 from their own 49, but a pass to Smith fell incomplete.
Milton took advantage of the missed opportunity to grab a 9-7 lead on a 28-yard field goal by Max Winkler.
It went from bad to worse for Needham, as Milton linebacker Stephen Joyce, who had an interception in the first half, recovered a fumble to stop the next Rockets drive. Milton then punted, and the ball was muffed and recovered in the end zone by Wildcats senior Tyrece Weekes to help push the lead to 16-7 with 2:36 to play in the third.
"This was the breakout game for (Joyce)," Dembowski said. "He played as a sophomore and got a taste of it last year. We've been putting more and more on him. He's very talented. You saw. He can rush the passer. He can play coverage. He's a real good linebacker, and he's a junior, so we're thrilled about that."
Charles intercepted a pass in the Milton end zone to stop another Needham drive in the third, but the Rockets struck in the fourth. Ogletree hit Smith, who broke a tackle, and motored down the Needham sideline for a 74-yard touchdown to bring his team to within 16-14 with 8:07 to play.
But the Wildcats answered immediately with McMenamin's 44-yarder to Woodley, and despite the missed PAT, were able to make enough stops late to come away victorious.
"When you play a great team with great players . . . It's not just Smith," Dembowski said. "Ogletree's a good player, and (Odhari) Hibberts is a really good player. . . . We just survived. That's probably the best way to say it."