SHREWSBURY — We all know well and good the prolific nature of the St. John's offense.
The Pioneers let everyone know Friday — loud and clear — that they can make stops when they need them to in a 14-7 win over Wachusett.
With limited possession on against a Wachusett team that controlled the ball and stopped two St. John's drives inside the Mountaineers' 5-yard line, the Pioneers made also key plays on defense to earn the No. 3 seed in the Div. 3 Central.
The victory improves the Pioneers to 6-2, while the Mountaineers hang on to the No. 1 seed after dropping to 7-1.
"We just stepped up tonight," said St. John's senior defensive tackle Luke Shibley. "This is the best game we played. We really just brought it tonight and it showed."
Shibley sacked Wachusett quarterback Seamus Higgins on the last visitors' final drive to force a fourth and long, which the Mountaineers could not convert.
Better known for his abilities on offense, Michigan verbal commit Eamonn Dennis made a leaping, one-handed interception to halt another Wachusett drive.
"I play my zone, and I made a play on the ball," Dennis said. "The defense stepped up really good today. They played really well. All the talks about the defense not being really good? We're really good, and we stepped up today."
"Yeah, we did (prove something on how good the defense actually is)," Dennis added. "And we have players next to me who are going to keep working."
Next week, it will have to be good again against No. 2 seed Doherty, which lost a 50-40 shootout to Shepherd Hill and has one of the best quarterbacks in the state in junior Noah Callery.
"Better," Shibley said about how he feels about the defense heading into the playoffs. "We're getting better each game, and it's better when the playoffs come. So it's going to be fun to watch."
Some more notes and observations from the game:
— Of course, the St. John's offense did its part, too. Wide receiver and Notre Dame verbal commit Jay Brunelle, who was whisked off on a flight to South Bend just minutes after the game, had a big hand in both first-half touchdowns.
First, he caught a pass from quarterback Colin Schofield over the middle for a 51-yard touchdown with 7:04 to play in the second quarter.
Then, he caught a 46-yarder from the Williams-bound quarterback to set up Schofield's sneak. That increased the lead to 14-0 with 2:15 to go in the first half.
"Our offense found a couple," St. John's coach John Andreoli said. "We had a touchdown called back. We made a couple of plays that we'd like to have back, and two inside the 2-yard line we weren't able to put in, but credit our defense for coming up and knocking us off the ball there. But we're going to work on that this week and take advantage of those opportunities."
But the St. John's offense showed balance, with slot receiver Antonio Stakely eating up the underneath routes and knifing through for key first downs. Wide receiver Nicholas Carelli had a strong game, too, to help Schofield complete 14-of-23 passes for 299 yards.
"Antonio had a great game," Andreoli said. "He made some third-down catches that just kept drives going, as did Nick Carelli."
Running back Richarno Hylton knifed through for several key first downs, including the ones that helped St. John's run out the clock.
St. John's running back Richarno Hylton breaks off a 16-yard run in the third quarter.
The offensive line of Sean Sullivan, Tyler Castriotta, Mark Fields, Cam Nolan, and Colin LeBlanc.protected well against a swarming Wachusett defense that allowed very little in the way of sustained drives.
— Wachusett had plenty of sustained drives, but the St. John's defense only allowed a 5-yard Higgins scoring rush at the end of the half to complete the scoring.
"I think if you look at our front four, our front seven, Luke Feraco did a great job," Andreoli said. "Cam Thibeault, he was out last week with an injury, but he came back and played his tail off, made some great hits. A couple tackles for losses and playing with a lot of emotion, and really kind of got our defense going."
Junior defensive tackle Justyce Hathaway continued to show why he is one of the better interior defensive linemen in the state.
"Justyce Hathaway, he just showed what a dominant player he is on the nose when he's a three-technique," Andreoli said. "He's just tough to block and he has a really quick first step. So, he had a great game, too."
— The Wachusett defense lived up to its billing, too, with some terrific goal-line stands to keep this one within reach. The Mountaineers recovered a fumble at the 1-yard line in the first quarter and forced another turnover on downs to start the third quarter.
Some excellent tackling here keeps Eamonn Dennis out of the end zone.
Jacob Nadeau again proved why he is one of the best linebackers in the state — and players, period — with a relentless style on a defense that was both fast and physical throughout.
— The Wachusett offense was led by its offensive line of Nadeau, Joel Minnich, Owen Champagne, George Shabo, and Jeremiah Marc, who paved the way for running backs like Caleb Marerro, Deion Osei-Sarpong, Angelo Smith and fullback Aidan Tomaszewski.
But what made the offense go the most was Higgins, with his scrambling and ability to keep plays alive with his feet, picking up big first downs difficult down-and-distance situations.
Wachusett's Seamus Higgins scrambles for a first down in the third quarter.
— It was a tough setback for Wachusett, and coach John Dubzinski hurried his players onto the bus after the handshake line and postgame talk.
It was an emotional loss for the Mountaineers, and when asked what the team will do to recover as it enters the postseason as the No. 1 seed, Mike Dubzinski simply said, "We're going to work hard."