READING — On a night when the cold autumn winds were picking up and freshman sensation James Murphy was not quite as sharp throwing the football as fans were used to seeing through three games of the season, the Reading High football team turned to its running game and its defense.
And did they ever deliver.
Behind a pair of 100-plus yard performances by running backs Dan DiMare and Nick Bates, and a stifling, hard-hitting effort by all 11 on the defensive side of the ball, the Rockets shut out visiting Woburn, 20-0 Friday night at John Hollingsworth Field.
With the win the Rockets improved to 3-1 and remained unbeaten in Middlesex League Liberty play (2-0). Woburn fell to 2-2, 1-1 ML Liberty.
Woburn could not find any offensive rhythm, as Reading’s front seven completely disrupted any semblance of a running game and its secondary surrendered no big pass plays. The Tanners punted eight times, turned the ball over once, and finished with just 53 yards on 32 carries (1.7 yards/carry) and 143 yards overall.
“I can’t say enough about our defense tonight. They were all over it. Just real proud of the kids,” said Reading head coach John Fiore. “That’s a tough, hard-nosed football team on the other side, so we’re real happy to get out of here with a win.”
Woburn’s defense also came to play and the Tanners trailed just 7-0 at the half. But when Bates burst up the middle for a 51-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter to stake the Rockets to a 14-0 lead, the game felt out of reach.
Overall it was a discouraging night for Woburn and head coach Jack Belcher. Quarterback Logan Wilson finished 10 of 18 passing for 90 yards, but was harried and under pressure by a hustling Reading defense (three sacks).
“They’re tougher than us, every single thing we tried on offense we couldn’t do — we tried different personnel groups, different formations, we tried everything and nothing worked. We just couldn’t block,” Belcher said. “Very disappointing, I didn’t think this was going to happen.”
Reading got off to a fast start. After holding Woburn to an opening three-and-out, DiMare ran for a 60-yard touchdown untouched off the left side, and Dante Barboza’s PAT made it 7-0 less than four minutes into the game. It appeared the Tanners were caught blitzing on the play.
But that would be it for either offense the remainder of the first half. The Rockets went three and out on three of their next four possessions. The Tanners suffered a turnover at their own 42 midway through the second quarter when DiMare stripped O’Brien following a short scramble, recovered by cornerback Brendan DiSilva. But Reading failed to take advantage of the short field.
Woburn put together a promising drive just before halftime, marching 55 yards on 13 plays before turning the ball over on downs at the Reading 32. Woburn gambled and won on the drive with a one-yard run by Arthur Amaral to convert a fourth and inches at its own 33. A personal foul assessed against the Rockets on fourth and long resulted in a fresh set of downs at midfield, then completions of 14 and 17 yards by Wilson to Symon Sathler and Mike Koussa, respectively, led to a first and 10 at the Reading 19.
But the drive ended poorly. Two false starts and an illegal shift had the Tanners in reverse, and Bates sacked Wilson on third down. Wilson’s hail mary attempt into the endzone on fourth down fell incomplete with 9 seconds left on the clock.
Reading started the second half with an aggressive running attack, with Bates ripping off runs of 36, seven, and five yards to drive the Rockets inside the Tanners’ 20. But Bates fumbled on another power inside run, giving Woburn possession at its own 14.
But Reading’s defense again rose to the occasion with Jeremy Rosh breaking up a pass attempt to help force a punt. Bates immediately redeemed himself with a 51-yard touchdown run through the heart of the Woburn defense.
Center Dan O’Connor and guards Steven Ilumba and Dom Crescenzo paved the way on Bates’ run, as did a great lead block by DiMare. Overall it was Reading’s best performance on the ground of the season.
“I think our o-line got after it a bit, Nick Bates and Dan DiMare really responded well with their blocking and finishing their runs,” Fiore said. “I love how the kids came out in the second half and finished it off.”
Woburn did not threaten the rest of the way. The Tanners failed to cross midfield and managed just four first downs in the second half. Colin DuRoss had a sack of Wilson, linebacker Colin Comerford had a pair of tackles for loss/no gain, and cornerback Patrick Harrigan broke up a third down pass play to force a punt.
Harrigan also flashed his skills on the offensive side of the ball. Murphy hit the 6-4 junior wide receiver on a quick slant, and Harrigan stepped out of a tackle and raced 43 yards to the end zone to open up a 20-0 lead with 6:39 left to play.
“It just felt like they out-toughed us. I don’t like saying that, but they did,” Belcher said. “To be down 7-0 at the half the way we played… it’s hard to describe. We just kept plugging away, I’m proud of that, the kids kept trying, doing different things, but they just seemed way ahead of us in the toughness department.”
“I’m just really proud of all the kids, the coaches, they did a tremendous job this week. Happy they got the result that they worked hard for,” Fiore said. “Looking forward to getting going on the film, making some corrections and getting ready for next week. We’ve got things we’ve still got to work on, but we’re going to get there.”
Reading hosts Arlington on Friday night (7 p.m.) while Woburn faces a very stiff challenge at home with unbeaten Melrose (7 p.m.).