By Conor Walsh Correspondent
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — MANCHESTER -- Austin Prep makes little effort to mask their intentions on offense. It’s obvious from the time the Cougars step on the field that they plan to run the football, early and often.
That makes it even more surprising that when the Cougars faced off with the Manchester Essex football team at Hyland Field in yesterday’s matinee, it wasn’t their running game that broke the Hornets’ backs.
It was quarterback Connor Duffy’s four completions -- all coming in the first half -- that proved to be the difference in Austin Prep’s 32-19 win, as two blown coverages yielded touchdown throws of 22 and 52 yards in the first quarter to get the Cougars off and running.
And while the Hornets did enough to keep the game close, cutting the Austin Prep lead to just seven points with 3:33 left in the game, they ultimately didn’t have enough to get over the top and fell to 1-4 on the season with another incomplete effort.
“Disappointing. Again. We just didn’t play well,” Manchester Essex coach Mike Athanas said. “Their first two scores, we were just playing the wrong defense. One d-back’s playing zone, the others are playing man. It’s a miscommunication and it killed us with those two early touchdowns.
“They throw the ball a little bit, but they don’t want to. They did it just to do it, and then they had some success with it, so they stuck with it a little bit. All because of our mistakes.”
The heart of the Hornets’ problems yesterday -- more than a porous defense and an inconsistent offense -- was field position.
A long punt return by Nicholas Vitale gave the Cougars (2-3) a short field to the end zone. They erased that gap in just two plays when Duffy found tight end John Cronin for an uncontested touchdown.
The Hornets responded with a Chris Dumont touchdown on the ensuing possession, taking a 7-6 lead and, one would think, erasing the Cougars’ early momentum.
But a long kickoff return by Vitale put Austin Prep at midfield, and on the first snap of that possession, Duffy hit tight end Nicholas Mulcahy for a 52-yard touchdown to again capitalize on a short field.
Of Austin Prep’s five touchdown drives, three started inside the Manchester Essex 40 yard line and all but one began within 52 yards of the Hornets’ end zone.
Take a strong offense, add a short field and you get the recipe a double-digit loss, which the Hornets cooked to perfection yesterday.
“You give a team like that a short field, it’s four downs all the time,” said Athanas, alluding to the fact that the Cougars never worried about punting on fourth down. “All phases, we were bad. Special teams, we were bad. We turned the ball over. Just not a crisp game, and we don’t deserve to win games like that.”
Oddly enough, the Hornets were in a position to win the game despite their mistakes. After falling behind, 18-13, late in the second quarter, they forced the Cougars to turn the ball over on downs inside the Manchester Essex 10-yard line to close out the first half down by just five points.
And after Austin Prep received the ball at the start of the second half and marched much of the field, the Hornets came up with another stop, this time at the 18-yard line, and the momentum had officially swung.
That bubble burst, though, when the Hornets’ ensuing drive was cut short by a turnover. As quarterback Cory Burnham (152 passing yards, 51 rushing yards, two touchdowns) lined up in the shotgun for a crucial third down, the snap sailed over his head and was recovered by the Cougars at the Hornets’ 36-yard line.
Six plays later, the Cougars led, 26-13.
“We had some momentum going in at halftime,” Athanas said. “We had just stopped them for the first time, then we stopped them again to open the second half, and that’s what we had talked about at halftime. ‘Make a stop, get the ball back and let’s go down and score.’ Then, we’re moving and we snap the ball over the quarterback’s head. Turned it over. Short field again. Give a team like that another short field, you’re not going to win.”
Even still, the Hornets nearly pulled it out. They responded with a nice drive, culminating in a six-yard touchdown strike from Burnham to Henry Gedney, to cut the Cougars lead to seven points with 3:33 to play.
But a failed onside kick gave the Cougars the ball again, and when Vitale broke off a 13-yard run on a 3rd-and-12 in the game’s final minutes, it was clear the game had slipped away.
The Cougars added an inconsequential touchdown to end that drive and hand the Hornets another loss.
As has often been the case this season for the Hornets, yesterday’s game was there for the taking. But between costly mistakes and allowing the Cougars 342 total yards (234 on the ground), the Hornets were again unable to reach out and grab a win.
“We’ve got to work on everything,” Athanas said. “When we can execute, we do really well. There’s no one little thing that’s going to turn everything around. We execute better offensively and tackle better today? Then it’s probably a different story.”
Austin Prep 32, Manchester Essex 19
at Hyland Field, Manchester
Austin Prep 12 6 0 14 | 32
Manchester Essex 13 0 0 6 | 19
A- John Cronin 22 pass from Connor Duffy (conversion failed)
M- Chris Dumont 1 run (John Beardsley kick)
A- Nicholas Mulcahy 52 pass from Duffy (conversion failed)
M- Beardsley 33 pass from Cory Burnham (conversion failed)
A- Nicholas Vitale 4 run (conversion failed)
A- Ryan Burke 1 run (conversion good)
M- Henry Gedney 6 pass from Burnham (kick failed)
A- Daniel Arena 4 run (kick failed)
RUSHING: Austin Prep | Vitale 17-129, Arena 13-87, Duffy 2-17, Burke 3-10, Christos Kourkoulos 3-8; Manchester Essex | Burnham 15-51, Sean Desmond 3-11, Dumont 11-9, Zak Fleming 2-7.
PASSING: Austin Prep | Duffy 4-7-108-2-0; Manchester Essex | Burnham 9-18-152-2-1.
RECEIVING: Austin Prep | Mulcahy 2-67, Cronin 2-41; Manchester Essex | Beardsley 3-66, Gedney 4-39, Brian McAuliff 1-24, Dumont 2-18.