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Gearing up for Tuesdayâ€™s push to the Super Bowl â€¦
Making fundamental changes to a football teamâ€™s strategy this late in the season is a radical move. Tweaking is the preferred action of coaches, applying a new wrinkle or two depending on the next opponent. Generally what has worked up until this point is going to continue â€“ unless something unforeseen happens.
Take last Wednesdayâ€™s Shea-Tolman holiday meeting. What the Raiders did to their crosstown neighbors in a 14-7 triumph was straight out of Ripleyâ€™s Believe It Or Not! Shea all but eliminated Tolmanâ€™s normally brutal rushing attack to the point that the Tigers had no choice but to incorporate the pass.
The Tigers finished with a pedestrian 86 yards on 40 carries. Senior Ousmane Samb normally breaks off 38 yards on one play, but it took the talented runner 12 agonizing handoffs to amass that total. Even more noteworthy is that the Raiders permitted the Tigers to zero or negative yardage on 16 plays.
For a team that has made passing the ball an afterthought â€“ Tolman didnâ€™t attempt a throw Oct. 23 against West Warwick and again in its Nov. 12 quarterfinal game against Westerly â€“ the Tigers suddenly found themselves chartering a course for unchartered territory. Shea had all but eliminated the ground game, meaning the game now belonged to the untested right arm of quarterback Joselito Knapp.
Knapp has made his mark as a run-first QB, but his job description was altered Wednesday. He wound up dropping back to pass 10 times, throwing a season-high nine times while getting sacked once. Three completions for 99 yards is what the Tolman junior finished with.
There was some good â€“ a 49-yard hookup with senior Shayne Taylor that was the Tigersâ€™ lone score â€“ and also some bad as Knapp fired four straight incompletions after Tolman fell behind by a score with 38 seconds left, the drive starting at its own 31-yard line. The last gasp was a throw intended for Samb that Sheaâ€™s Emilio Teixeira jumped in front of to bat away.
To remove a team out of its comfort zone is the goal of every defense, but what the Raiders did to the Tigers â€“ even if the game meant nothing except for bragging rights â€“ is akin to the elbow President Obama took to the mouth during a pickup basketball game last Friday. Tolman was shaken up to the point where head coach Dave Caito had no choice but to dust off the page of passing plays in the playbook.
The question is how exactly did the Raiders frustrate the Tigers? It appears the key lies in pre-snap reads, using oneâ€™s eyes as a guide to see where the key offensive cogs line up. Tolman uses a ton of motion, which can befuddle the defense to the point that Samb is running a toss sweep to the right side, or Knapp is being called upon for a lead draw right up the middle.
The Raiders responded by causing confusion of their own, whether it was lining up with eight or nine players in the box or sagging back defensively when the situation dictated that Tolman would throw.
â€śThe kids had to read their signs and react to certain things,â€ť explained Shea head coach Dino Campopiano, giving kudos to the game plan drawn up by defensive coordinator Damon Scarduzio. â€śThere were certain things, depending on the defense we called, that we had to do.
â€śWhen you watch them (the Tigers) on film, you see that they donâ€™t throw the ball much because they have a great running game,â€ť Campopiano added. â€śThey have four guys who can run and have a quarterback (in Knapp) who can also run. I think it was about our kids going out and playing hard.â€ť
Did Tolman leave itself vulnerable heading into tomorrowâ€™s semifinal round date with St. Raphael?
â€śI know coach Caito will clean up the mistakes and get them mentally and physically ready,â€ť said Campopiano. â€śNow he knows his quarterback can throw to the backs on outs. Maybe it was a good thing to see that (Knapp) can throw a little bit.
â€śDave will put this on the backburner because (falling to Shea) doesnâ€™t mean anything right now,â€ť he continued. â€śThey have bigger things to worry about.â€ť
Cumberland matched Shea in terms of defensive prowess, holding a balanced Woonsocket offense to a paltry 64 total yards â€“ a sum the defending Division II champs normally rack up in one series.
According to head coach Chris Skurka, Cumberland threw a little bit of everything at Woonsocket, which managed just one offensive touchdown in a 14-0 win.
â€śWe played a lot of Cover-2 against them and tried to be physical with their receivers on the outside, not letting them off the line. They have kids who can run and catch the ball pretty well,â€ť said Skurka, a former defensive coordinator at St. Raphael. â€śOur defensive line had an outstanding game. We kind of moved around and took some chances with some blitzes. The kids played great and I canâ€™t say enough about how hard they played.â€ť
Students came out in droves and filled up the Max Read Field stands for the Tolman-Shea game. This furthers the belief that the Thanksgiving game belongs to the younger generation, while the old-timers prefer the history and lineage that defines St. Rayâ€™s-Tolman.
There are over 80 years worth of memories in the St. Raphael-Tolman matchup â€“some may be as bold as to label it a feud â€“ while Tolman-Shea is not even a decade old. Little wonder why teenagers and elder statesmen can better relate to one game as opposed to the other.
That said, expect young and old to share space at Max Read Field tomorrow night in what could serve as the best social experiment Pawtucket has seen in decades. The game means too much to the fans of the Tigers and Saints, regardless if your memories include when Ray McGee and the late Dennis Oâ€™Brien and patrolled the sidelines, or Septemberâ€™s 37-0 statement by Tolman.