It was far from the start the Manchester Essex football team had envisioned for its season last Friday.
After forcing host Amesbury to turn the ball over on downs deep in Manchester Essex territory, the Hornets took over with a chance to get out to an early lead over the favored Indians.
But the Hornets’ empty backfield, shotgun approach quickly failed them, when an incomplete pass, two false starts and a fumble left them searching for answers and all-but handed the Indians their first touchdown.
From there, the Manchester Essex offense that coach Mike Athanas hoped would thrive with a balanced attack struggled to find a rhythm, gaining just two first downs and 49 yards in the first half before heading to the locker room with a 21-0 halftime deficit.
When the Hornets (0-1) take the field tonight against Saugus (0-1) for their home opener at Hyland Field (7:00), they’ll be looking to put those first half struggles behind them.
“We’ve just got to cut down on our mistakes,” Athanas said. “We had a couple of false starts, we turned the ball over and you just can’t do that to move the ball. It was a tough hole to get out of.”
It’s been clear since the preseason that the Manchester Essex offense would center on dual-threat quarterback Cory Burnham, who finished last week’s game with a team-high 46 yards on the ground and 42 passing yards.
But while the Hornets’ attack finally started to click on their final drive last weekend -- which culminated with a six yard touchdown run by Burnham -- they were never able to establish what, on paper, appears to be a strong running game in the eventual 28-7 loss.
Senior running back Jake Fitzgerald, who piled up 756 yards and seven touchdowns last season, was a non-factor and finished the game with just four carries and 17 yards.
In fact, outside of Burnham’s yards on the ground, the Hornets rarely got rolling with their running game.
That lack of offensive presence – the Hornets managed just 167 total yards – hurt the Hornets in more ways than one and certainly showed up on the scoreboard.
Stalled drives left the defense with little rest, and the three-and-outs that plagued Manchester Essex often handed the Indians great field position.
When the Hornets take the field tonight, they’ll be looking to get their veteran-laden offensive attack on track.
“I don’t think our field position was great the other night,” Athanas said. “Things started to come around in the second half with the running game, but that’s because they played off the line and defended the pass more. We’re always trying to take what the defense gives us. If they put eight guys in the box, we’ll throw the ball. If not, we’ll run the ball.”
The Hornets will need that balance tonight, when they take the field against a Saugus squad that always seems to meet them with a tough game.
And while the Sachems enter tonight’s game looking to move past a similarly lopsided season-opener (a 27-10 loss to North Reading), Athanas feels both the Hornets and the Sachems opened their seasons with better performances than the scores indicated.
“We saw them play North Reading the other night, and they came out and did a lot of good things,” said Athanas, whose team won a 23-19 barnburner at Saugus last season.
“The score wasn’t indicative of the game. They’ve got a lot of returners on the line and they’ve got their quarterback back, so we’re expecting a much improved team since last year.”
Tonight’s game looks to be a similarly tight matchup to that of last season.
But most importantly for the Hornets, it gives them a chance to move past their mistake-riddled performance last weekend and get their season back on track in front of a home crowd.
“We’ve had a good week of practice, and I think we look a lot better than we did last week,” Athanas said.
“It’s always fun to get back at it at home, and I know the kids are looking forward to playing in front of the home crowd. Hopefully this week, we can get a ‘W’ next to our name.”