READING — There is good defense, and excellent defense … and then there is the kind of defense the Reading High football team has been playing. A brand that invites high school comparisons to the likes of The Steel Curtain or the Monsters of the Midway.
Reading’s starting 11 did not allow a score and held its opponents to less than 100 yards of offense in wins over Woburn and Winchester. On Saturday Belmont was the latest to run into the brick wall that is the 2021 Rockets’ D. A fourth-quarter drive against Reading’s backups resulted in a score for the visiting Marauders (0-3), who otherwise were going in reverse, managing just 17 yards and a single first down against the starting unit in a 30-7 Reading win.
“Defensively I thought we tackled really well in space, and fit their run game exceptionally well. I was pleased with that,” said Reading head coach John Fiore. “Guys were flying around.”
Many individuals were flying around and wreaking havoc as it was a total team effort for the Rockets (3-0). Leading the charge was defensive end Shaun Bekkenhuis who was in on six tackles with a sack, a tackle for a loss and a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. Defensive back Colby Goodchild had five tackles. Big defensive end Dom DeCrescenzo added a pressure and a tackle for loss and linebackers Dan DiMare and Patrick DuRoss each added a sack.
“Our defense has been lights out. It starts with (defensive coordinator David) Blanchard, right on down to our senior leadership with Dom (DeCrescenzo), Shaun Bekkenhuis, Danny (DiMare), (Nick) Bates, Trevor Conroy on the back end, Colby Goodchild, Adam DiNapoli and Pat Harrigan coming on strong,” Fiore said. “They’re really starting to communicate well and do a nice job.”
Offensively the Rockets were efficient, shifting gears from last week’s aerial-heavy attack to a ground game led by fullback Lucas Flemming, who ground out 101 bruising yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback James Murphy was 11 of 19 passing for 135 yards and a touchdown to Dan DiMare, but unveiled a new wrinkle in his game with two long scrambles for first downs (23 and 13 yards).
Murphy, who has been a classic pocket passer, on one occasion froze a Belmont defender with a pump fake that allowed him to scramble for a drive-sustaining first down.
“I thought the offensive line did a really nice job, but Lucas really ran hard,” Fiore said. “I was really happy to see that, really happy for him. (Murphy) made a couple nice decisions there to bring it down and go find some space and run.”
Reading also got a good kicking day out of senior Ben Ferrante, who was 3 of 4 on extra points and added a rare 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Fiore credited the win to his team’s focus on preparation and planning, which has stayed consistent regardless of opponent. Reading was not perfect, with five fumbles (two lost) on offense and special teams, and also suffered a pair of injuries to starting running back Trevor Thornton and DiMare. But that gives the Rockets something to work on for this week’s game at Arlington.
“We try as best as we can to focus only on the team that we’re playing, and envision them as the best team we’ll play all year,” Fiore said. “I think you saw that Belmont wasn’t going to quit, and they made some plays in the second half. We certainly got the result we wanted but I know there are things we can correct and do better.”
Reading got off to a fast start on both sides of the ball. Belmont netted minus-three yards on its opening drive and had to punt from its own 30. A short set the Rockets up at the Belmont 48, and a nine-play, 52-yard march capped by a nine-yard Thornton touchdown run put the Rockets up 7-0. The key play on the drive was a 23-yard Murphy scramble on third and 12 at the Belmont 39.
Belmont again went three and out on its next possession, but in turn forced a rare Reading punt, as Zach Moss tackled Fleming for no gain and Murphy was pressured into an incompletion on third and short.
But Reading’s defense dialed it up on the ensuing Belmont possession. Bekkenhuis batted down a first down pass, then combined with DeCrescenzo for a stop of Brennen Westgate on a QB keeper for a short gain. On third down Westgate hit Matt McHugh for a screen pass, but DeCrescenzo planted the Belmont fullback for a four-yard loss to force a punt.
Reading took over at the Belmont 35 and needed just two plays to score. Murphy hit Nick Perez for a 21-yard pass to the 14, then DiMare beat 1:1 coverage and Murphy led him into the endzone with a perfectly-thrown 14-yard TD pass as the first quarter expired.
Reading scored two more unanswered touchdowns in the second quarter to take a commanding 27-0 lead into halftime. In a familiar refrain the Marauders went three and out to open the second quarter following a 14-yard DiMare quarterback sack, and Reading drove 65 yards on nine plays on the change of possession to open up a 20-0 lead. Murphy found Harrigan with a swing pass and the senior wide receiver sped 32 yards down to the Belmont 25. From there Fleming did the rest on five carries, including a two-yard cutback run for a touchdown.
Fleming added a second touchdown run with a minute left in the half, running through a yawning hole behind the blocks of center Dan O’Connor and guard Joe Gilligan from five yards out to cap a short seven-play, 36-yard touchdown drive. The drive was set up by Reading’s fourth straight defensive stop, with DeCrescenzo flushing Westgate out of the pocket and Bekkenhuis sacking him for a five-yard loss. Goodchild returned the ensuing punt 15 yards to the Belmont 36 to give Reading great starting field positon.
The Rockets hurt themselves in the second half with back-to-back fumbles, both recovered by the Marauders in Reading territory at the 32 and 34, respectively. But on both occasions Belmont could make no headway, turning over the ball on downs on its first possession and going three-and-out with a punt on the second.
The Rockets travel to Arlington on Saturday (noon).