GRAFTON, Mass. — It is rare that a big, hyped football game lives up to all the advanced billing but Friday afternoon at Grafton High School, it did just that as Northbridge High came from behind on a great performance by quarterback Matt Phelan and held on to beat Grafton, 28-21.
It was a see-saw game that saw momentum change for each side. Grafton used a powerful running game to take control of the line of scrimmage but Northbridge, behind Phelan, hit on several big plays to counter.
"We have a really good offense," Northbridge coach Ken LaChappelle said. "We feel we can play with anyone, but they (Grafton) have a great defense, we knew it would be tough."
After a long Grafton drive to take a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, Phelan, under a heavy pass rush early in the game, hit a bubble screen to wide receiver Dan Clasby, who made a beautiful cutback and raced 71 yards to the three. Phelan would rush it in on a keeper the next play and the score was tied.
Grafton went on a long time consuming drive (nearly seven minutes), eating up yardage and the clock, and scored a touchdown by Corey Charpentier on a 2-yard run with just 45 seconds left in the half.
This is when Phelan put his stamp on the game. Few in Central Mass football have the athletic skills he does at quarterback, but what sets him apart is the cannon for an arm he has — which just isn't seen much in high school football. Phelan took over at the 39-yard line and lasered a pass deep down the middle to wide receiver Ben O'Donnell for 37 yards down to the Grafton 24-yard line.
Just two plays later he rocketed another pass in the end zone to O'Donnell that was way too easy. A fake extra point was run in by Phelan to give the Rams a 15-14 lead. The entire drive took 25 seconds.
"We really didn't expect to have time to score," Phelan said. "But I saw him in the middle, and he made things happen, but the line giving me time made the play happen," Phelan added.
In the second half, Phelan started to really find time to throw and mixed in with his running, the Rams knocked the Indians back on their heels. From the Grafton 7-yard line, Phelan found O'Donnell again in the end zone to make it 21-14.
A Grafton punt from the end zone was returned by Phelan to the 19-yard line. It took one play on another laser by Phelan to Jake Ryan down the middle. Ryan was wide open when the Grafton coverage broke down, and it was 28-14 Northbridge.
Phelan said the middle wasn't the first read. "I was actually on both plays looking somewhere else, that was my second or third option, but then I saw the middle was wide open. I don't know why it was (so open), but that was my receivers finding the soft spot and getting open."
But Grafton clawed back into the game, taking the ball on another long drive that took about 4 minutes using the ground game. Grafton scored a 1-yard touchdown by QB Doug Oevermann to narrow it to 28-21.
Grafton stopped Northbridge to get the ball back with just under three minutes left in the game and drove one last time, but Oevermann's pass was intercepted by O'Donnell at the Northbridge 2-yard line with 1:30 to go. The Rams were able to kill the clock and escape with a close win.
"I think the turning point of the game was when we were able to score with 40 seconds to go in the half," LaChappelle said. "After that, I thought we played a great 3rd quarter and I thought the kids played a good game against a very good team. We are happy to come out with the win."