The Toll Gate football team made its push early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s non-league game against Ponaganset. Trailing 20-12, the Titans got a big run from Jose Javier and had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, with a chance to tie the game.
Instead, the Titans lost a fumble, and three plays later, Ponaganset’s Scott Peterson broke loose for a back-breaking 93-yard touchdown run.
That swing was a pretty good symbol for the whole game. The Titans couldn’t quite get over the hump – and they couldn’t stop Peterson. The Ponaganset senior rushed for a school-record 328 yards and five touchdowns, and the Titans struggled to put it all together when they had the ball. The Chieftains ended up pulling away for a 34-12 victory.
“This was a team that, two years ago, came up to Ponaganset and really did a number on us,” said Ponaganset head coach Tom Marcello. “Last year, we came down here and we played a good brand of football. We knew they were going to be tough, we knew they were going to be a good team and we knew they were going to be well-coached. Our kids played great today. We were very proud of their performance.”
The Chieftains, who are 1-3 in Division III, improved to 2-4 overall. Toll Gate dropped to 0-6 and left the field frustrated. The Titans were coming off games against D-II powers Johnston and Westerly, and they knew the match-up with Ponaganset was a good opportunity for a victory. In some ways, they played well enough to win, but ultimately didn’t do enough.
“We had a chance to maybe tie it up, and we didn’t get it,” said Toll Gate head coach Matt Mancuso. “The wheels fell off after that. That was a big momentum swing, and that’s what we were trying to avoid.”
The Chieftains made several big plays with their defense. In addition to the key Toll Gate fumble, they forced three other turnovers and stopped the Titans on eight other drives.
And with Peterson in the backfield, Ponaganset could take full advantage. He carried 27 times and had touchdown runs of 93, 70, 37 and 33. He also kicked five extra points, which meant he was responsible for all 34 Ponaganset points.
“He’s deceivingly fast,” Marcello said. “He doesn’t look like he’s running that fast or gaining that much, but he just moves. We’ve had a lot of special players at Ponaganset over the years. We have a lot of special players on this team, and he’s certainly one of them.”
The Titans held Peterson in check at times, limiting him to 48 yards on his first 13 carries. Aside from the four long touchdown runs, the Titans held him to just over four yards per carry.
But the big plays were the difference.
“He’s a great ball-player,” Mancuso said. “We told these guys all week, and I don’t know if they took me seriously. Those long runs were back-breakers.”
Peterson got the Chieftains on the board with a 3-yard touchdown run with 11:20 left in the second quarter, but the Titans answered when they blocked a punt with 7:39 left in the second quarter. Aaron Travers had the block, and Derryck Anderson returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was no good, which kept Ponaganset in front 7-6.
The Titans couldn’t take advantage of a Ponaganset fumble and punted on their next drive. When the Chieftains took over, Peterson broke a 70-yard touchdown on the first play and hit the extra point to make it 14-6.
Still, the Titans stayed close. After forcing a punt, they took over near midfield with 1:11 left in the first half. A 9-yard pass from Dave Babcock to Travers converted a fourth-and-3. After a spike to stop the clock, Babcock scrambled for 25 yards to the 2-yard line. Javier ran it in from there on the final play of the half. Toll Gate missed on the two-point conversion, but had made it a 14-12 game.
“We were right there,” Mancuso said.
The start of the second half didn’t help matters. The Chieftains forced a fumble on a sack of Babcock and on the very next play, Peterson got loose again, this time rumbling 33 yards for a score. The extra point was no good, which kept it 20-12.
The Titans lost another fumble as soon as they took over, but this time, they held strong and forced a fumble of their own on a fourth-down play. From there, the teams traded punts, and the Titans came to life. On a second-and-8 at the Toll Gate 48, Javier took a pitch to the left and rambled 47 yards before Alex Irace brought him down at the 5-yard line.
On first-and-goal, Javier picked up a yard. On second down, he pushed for 3 yards but as he stretched the ball out, it came loose and the Chieftains pounced on it.
“I didn’t have a good view,” Mancuso said. “Our quarterback thought he was down, one of our coaches up top said he might have lost it. But we can’t fumble there.”
On the Ponaganset sideline, Marcello viewed the original tackle on the 47-yard run as the key.
“The big play was catching him,” Marcello said. “Alex didn’t give up. That’s the way we need to play football. Those are the plays we need to make. If we just let him walk in, it’s a different game.”
As it was, the fumble made it a different game, too. On first down at the 1-yard line, with the Titans thinking safety, Peterson pushed forward for 3 yards. He picked up 3 yards again on second down. Then, on third-and-4 from the 7, with the Titans still thinking about a stop, Peterson powered through the line of scrimmage, saw daylight and raced untouched down the sideline for the 93-yard score.
“Sometimes, we wrapped him up but all of a sudden we took a play off,” Mancuso said. “That’s the big thing – everybody does their job. If one guy doesn’t do their job, it’s a back-breaker.”
The touchdown made it 27-12. Toll Gate went three-and-out on its next drive, and two plays later, Peterson broke a 37-yard touchdown run to put the game on ice.
The Titans couldn’t get anything going on their final two drives.
“We were coming back, but we just couldn’t get it,” Mancuso said. “It was a tough game. We had one tackle hurt already and another got hurt. We’re thin up front as it is so that really hurt us.”
On the bright side, the Titans had some solid performances. Javier rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Babcock completed seven of 16 passes for 68 yards and kept several plays alive with his feet.
On the other side of the ball, the Titans limited everybody not named Peterson to 32 yards.
The Titans hope they’ll be able to build on some of those positives as they head into the stretch run of league play. They’ll host Woonsocket on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what happens,” Mancuso said. “I want to keep the guys together and start building for next year. I feel bad for the seniors. They’re out here playing hard. We’ll just try to get something going.”