CHELMSFORD – When it comes to previewing a football game – at any level really – you often hear that if a team wants to win, “it needs to win the turnover battle.”
On Friday night, the Tewksbury Memorial High School won the turnover battle 4-0 against Chelmsford, resulting in a 21-6 victory. It's the fifth straight week that the Redmen have won the turnover battle, which has resulted in a five-game winning streak, after losing the season opener to non-league opponent Danvers.
With their 5-1 surprising record to this point, the Redmen defense has caused 17 turnovers, scored two defensive touchdowns (both by Blake Ryder), have given up just 37 points in the first half of six games and 52 points in the second half of six games, averaging 6.2 and 8.7 points, respectively.
The latest effort was again pretty stellar. Chelmsford was able to rattle off small big chunks of yards at times, but when push came to shove, a 73-yard fumble return TD by Ryder to go along with key interceptions by Justin Darrigo and Sean Hirtle and fumble recoveries by Ryder and Aaron Connolly were once again the difference of Tewksbury all but shutting down the Lions offense.
“(Four takeaways) obviously makes things much easier when you can steal some extra possessions. It gives the offense some more wiggle room to be able to do some different things, try some different things and see what’s going to work,” said head coach Brian Aylward. “When you don’t get (those turnovers) then it’s pressure on your offense to convert every time. We want to do that every week anyways, but the turnovers help alleviate that pressure (on the offense).”
In contrast, through seven games of the Fall-2 season, Tewksbury had 11 takeaways.
“Defense in general is just about a mindset. You need to get the sense of urgency when the momentum is on the other side. We talk about the fight of getting that momentum back and a turnover is the best way to do that,” said Aylward. “It's not that we're overcoaching different techniques or that kind of thing, but we always talk about getting a second or third guy to the ball, if you've got leverage on a route, to run the route so we talk about those kinds of things all of the time.
“You need eleven guys with that same kind of intensity. If you've got eleven guys with that same kind of intensity, good things are going to happen.”
As impressive as Tewksbury was on defense, the game's opening drive was even more so. The Redmen started with the ball on their own 24, and ran 14 plays from scrimmage for 76 yards over 10:28 on the clock.
All but one of the 14 plays was for positive yards, including three plays of 11, 12 and 12 yards, while the Redmen managed five first downs in the series and were helped out by a 15-yard facemask penalty.
The key play in the drive was a fourth-and-six situation from the C18. Quarterback Danny Fleming (107 passing yards with a TD and 80 rushing yards with another score) rolled out to his right and was looking to pass, only to cut back to the left side and gain 13 yards for a huge first down.
Three plays later, he ran a bootleg to his right from four yards out, and Kodie LeGrand's first of three PAT kicks was good and Tewksbury led 7-0 with 1:32 left in the first and the Lions had yet to touch the ball.
“We got a chance to see how we were going to run different things against their defense. We gave them some different looks (on that first drive) so we could check out what they were going to do. They had some good defensive adjustments early on, but you have to make the right adjustment to all of them. That's why our guys just need to stay focused, grind and be good learners and give us the ability to do that, and do multiple formations,” said Aylward.
Chelmsford quickly moved the ball, starting with a 23-yard kick-off return to just shy of midfield, followed by runs of 20 and 8 yards, moving the ball to the Redmen 24.
On second-and-two, QB Blake Wilder went to hand the ball off, but the ball fell to the ground. Ryder, playing defensive end, came in, scooped it up and went 73 yards untouched for the score, coming with 18 seconds left in the quarter.
“We did some good things tonight. The fumble return touchdown was huge, especially because I thought we left some stuff on that table that we didn’t convert on in the first half,” said Aylward. “There were some things that we worked on in practice, but weren’t able to convert so we have plenty of things that we need to work on. Every week is a new season, so we’re going to get back to work to be ready for next week’s game.”
Chelmsford then reeled off a 13-play, 78-yard drive, capped off by a fourth-and-goal, 2-yard TD pass from Wilder to Ryan Blagg in the back of the end zone. The conversion pass attempt failed and Tewksbury led 14-6 with 8:17 left in the half.
Again Tewksbury responded. Three plays later, Fleming moved to his left out of the pocket and found a completely wide open Michael Sullivan and he hit him in stride to what turned out to be a 56-yard TD and the 21-6 lead stood through the rest of the first half.
“Passing wise, we're getting better and more efficient with that. We just have to keep working with different things within our skillset and if we can do that, we'll have a chance,” said Aylward.
In the second half, Chelmsford punted on its first two possessions, and then squandered a big chance to score with three straight incompletions on second-and-six from the Redmen 8.
Then later in the fourth, still down by 15, the Lions moved the ball to their 39, but on second-and-eleven, Hirtle stepped in front of a receiver to pick off a pass, which all but sealed the victory.
Tewksbury returns home for a Friday night game against winless Dracut before ending the regular season the following Friday at Andover High for its MVC cross-over game.