Gloucester head football coach Tony Zerilli did not mince words when describing how important tonight’s Northeastern Conference Small tilt at Marblehead is.
“It’s a gigantic game,” he said.
There was no hyperbole in Zerilli’s description as it truly is a gigantic game tonight at Piper Field (7 p.m.) between two NEC Small powers. Tonight’s winner moves to 2-0 in conference play, and more importantly controls its own destiny for the conference title and an automatic berth in the Division 3 Northeast playoffs.
Through four games this season the Fishermen have seen tough, physical teams, strong power running attacks and stout defenses, but they have yet to face a team that puts it all together the way the Magicians do on both ends of the ball.
Offensively Marblehead has yet to be held under 35 points and is averaging 40 points per contest. The offense sports the area’s leading passer in Matt Millett, it’s top two leading receivers in Brian Daly and Jeremy Gillis, and one of the areas most feared rushers in Brooks Tyrrell.
On defense, the 4-0 Magicians are powered by a sure tackling linebacker core and an enormous defensive line.
“Marblehead is a very good team offensively and defensively,” Zerilli said. “Everyone talks about their offense but their defense is just as good. One of our challenges will be to keep our offense on the field and run on them.”
When Gloucester has the ball the game plan is simple, keep the Magicians defense on the field. The Fishermen have thrived in the clock management department through four games, winning the time of possession battle in each one. But tonight Gloucester will have less margin for error as it not only needs to hold onto the ball for a long time, but end its drives with points.
Points have been tough to come by against the Magicians, who have allowed just 31 points in four wins, 24 of them coming in one game. Gillis and Ben Anderson at linebacker along with Tom Koopman and Dan Marino on the line power the Marblehead 4-4 defense.
“We need to get the ball, keep the ball, get first downs and end drives with touchdowns,” Zerilli said. “We need to keep our offense on the field to keep theirs off the field.”
When Marblehead has the ball, Gloucester will have to be wary of big play threats all over the field.
The Magicians can play the finesse game on the outside with Matt Millett playing catch with Daly, Gillis and Will Millett, but they can also grind with the best of them with Tyrrell in the running game.
Through four games the Magicians have feasted on opposing defenses by hitting short route after short route and then going deep for a big play after the defense over-commits to the short stuff, and the running game operates in a similar fashion as Tyrrell can get tough yards and break the big one.
“They will lull you to sleep with the short pass and then beat you with the deep ball,” Zerilli said. “That’s what we’ve been telling our defensive backs all week, be ready for lots of hitches, but also remember that they love the hitch and go too, you can’t over pursue. The run game is the same way, (Tyrrell) will grind for two, three, four yards and then he gets a seam and goes 45 yards for a touchdown. It’s a big play team that can wear on you as well with athletes on the outside and a physical running game inside the tackles.”
The Fishermen need to make Marblehead play their grinding, physical style of play, a style that Gloucester has learned how to win with.
“If we can turn the game into a fight we know what it takes to win,” Zerilli said. “And the kids have a lot of confidence playing in those types of games.”