With a tough league season in the rearview mirror and another challenge looming on Thanksgiving, the Toll Gate football team didn’t want to waste its chance on Saturday morning.
The Titans made sure they didn’t.
Hosting cross-town rival Pilgrim in a non-league crossover game, the Titans capitalized on offensive chances in a way they hadn’t all year and came up big in key moments on defense en route to a 28-20 victory, their first of the season. Pilgrim remained winless at 0-10.
“I actually thought we played better in some of our losses than we did today, but I’m glad we got something positive before we go into Thanksgiving,” said Toll Gate head coach Matt Mancuso. “We made some good stops and we finished today. We still gave up some big plays, but when you’re 0-for-7, as long as you get that win, it doesn’t matter how.”
The Titans and Pats knew for a while that they might get matched up against each other. For the first time in several years, they were slotted in different sub-divisions of D-II, so they only met in the preseason Injury Fund. But in D-II, with the playoffs starting before Thanksgiving, non-playoff teams always add a crossover game to their schedule.
The Pilgrim-Toll Gate match-up was a good fit, with both teams getting a chance to play a comparable opponent and jump into the win column.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Titans jumped ahead 14-0. Pilgrim made several pushes, but Toll Gate ultimately never trailed. A fourth-quarter touchdown run by Zach Mitchell put the game on ice.
“We were struggling with execution,” Pilgrim coach Tom O’Connor said. “We had a gameplan and when we executed it, we got 6 or 8 yards a play and moved the ball really well. But if you can’t stop the turnovers and the silly penalties, you hurt yourself.”
The Titans struck first midway through the second quarter, after they stopped Pilgrim on a fourth-and-1 at the 11-yard line. An 86-yard touchdown run by Jose Javier on the first play was wiped away because of a block-in-the-back, but the Titans marched down the field undeterred. A 24-yard run by Aaron Travers pushed the Titans into the red zone, and Javier scored from 10 yards out.
The Titans failed on the two-point try but led 6-0.
“Our joke all week long was that we’ve been allergic to the end zone,” Mancuso said. “We’ve gotten into the red zone against good teams. Against Mt. Hope we moved the ball inside the 20 all game long and we kept making mistakes. Our goal today was to finish.”
On the first play of Pilgrim’s next possession, Joe Brosnahan intercepted a Rob Quaine pass and took off down the sideline, racing 50 yards to the end zone for another touchdown. The Titans converted the two-point try for the 14-0 lead.
With the Titans breaking out, Pilgrim quickly got in on the act. Mike Kelly returned the ensuing kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown, and Quaine found Kevin Blanchette for the two points, making it 14-8.
The Pats then recovered an onside kick but went three-and-out. Still, they then threatened to jump in front just before halftime. Quaine completed two passes to Steven Medeiros and another to Blanchette to move the Pats deep into Toll Gate territory and he scrambled for 14 yards to put them in the red zone. With under a minute on the clock, Quaine misfired on his next two attempts but connected with Kelly for 8 yards on third down. The Pats quickly lined up for a fourth-and-2 at the 5-yard line, but Mitchell intercepted a pass in the middle of the field to keep Pilgrim out of the end zone.
“We had that stop before halftime and that was huge,” Mancuso said. “Zach came up with a big play.”
In the second half, the Toll Gate defense quickly asserted itself, with Javier sacking Quaine on a third-and-9 to force a punt. The Titans took over at the Pilgrim 40, converted a fourth-and-1 on a run by Javier and then scored two plays later when Travers found Malique Woods in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown. Travers then hit Mitchell to convert the two, making it 22-8.
The Pats weren’t done, though, and Kelly once again provided the answer. On a second-and-1 at the Toll Gate 49, Kelly followed his blocks on a toss to the left, found daylight and sprinted all the way to the end zone. Mike Turchetta carried the ball on the two-point try, and Pilgrim thought he got in when the pile was pushed forward, but the officials ruled that the whistle had blown first. That kept it 22-14.
From there, the Pats gave themselves a chance, forcing a pair of Toll Gate punts. But they couldn’t seize their opportunities, in large part because of a push by the Titans’ defense. After Pilgrim took over at the Toll Gate 43, Javier hit Kelly for a loss then rushed Quaine into a bad throw on fourth down.
The Pats got the ball again after another Toll Gate punt and Quaine got them out of bad field position with a 40-yard scramble to the Titans’ 42. But after two solid gains, Chris Durand sacked Quaine on first down for an 8-yard loss. Kelly was then stuffed for a 2-yard loss, before Jackson Burgos and Durand flushed Quaine out of the pocket and limited him to 2 yards on third down. On fourth down, Burgos, Javier and Colby Connell forced another quick throw and it fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.
“We saw in shotgun, they really only threw the ball,” Mancuso said. “So we decided to blitz it and try to play man. If they beat us, they beat us. I think early in the season, we were trying to stop everything. The last couple of weeks, we’ve focused on some key things other teams do and tried to stop those.”
For the Pats, it was a frustrating turn of events. Quaine was sacked five times and pressured many more.
“That was our strength all year before this game,” O’Connor said. “The best thing we could do was pass block. I can’t explain it. I’d like to but I can’t.”
The Pats still had life and forced Toll Gate into a fourth-and-3 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. But on the fourth-down play, Travers drew the Pilgrim defense offside to give the Titans a first down. Javier followed with runs of 7 and 3 yards, before Mitchell broke loose for a 43-yard touchdown with 2:50 left. The conversion was no good, but the Titans led 28-14.
The Pats gave the comeback one more try and made the Titans sweat again, with Quaine finding Davien Brown for two big gains. He then hit Medeiros for a 26-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left. The Pats went for two but Quaine was stopped for no gain. Still, it was a one-possession game at 28-20.
With no timeouts, Pilgrim’s only chance was to recover an onside kick, but Mitchell pounced on it for the Titans, and they took a knee to end the game.
The Titans could celebrate. Though it wasn’t a perfect performance, the final score was a nice reward for a team that has been taking strides.
“We’re young,” Mancuso said. “It’s nice to see them getting better. In a bad season, there are a lot of positives you can look at. I thought they played well.”
Javier led the Titans with 71 yards rushing on 18 carries, while Mitchell had 51 yards. Travers completed two of six passes for 33 yards and a score.
Pilgrim out-gained the Titans 218-172, with Kelly leading the charge. The senior added to his late-season surge with 89 yards and the two touchdowns.
“Mike Kelly is settling in nicely,” O’Connor said. “He’s making first people miss, which is huge.”
Quaine rushed for 44 yards on 13 carries and completed seven of 18 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Both the Titans and Pats will now turn their attention to Thanksgiving. Toll Gate will face a tough challenge against Hendricken, while the Pats will be trying to spring an upset against Vets, just as Vets did to them last year.
“It’s the most important game for our season this year,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to look to do more of what we did right today and less of what we did wrong.”