SAUGUS -- The Newburyport football team couldn’t get on the bus out of Saugus fast enough last night.
The Clippers (4-3 overall, 1-0 CAL) kept alive hopes of repeating as Cape Ann League/Northeastern Conference Division 3 champions with a 20-14 victory over Saugus on rain-soaked Stackpole Field.
It was an afternoon of firsts for the Clippers in that they were playing their first league game of the season, and it was the first start for quarterback Connor Wile, who missed the first six games due to a lingering shoulder injury that he suffered last spring.
Nothing was pretty about the victory, and as has often been the case for the Clippers over the last two seasons, the game involved a comeback and anxiety down to the final minute.
Newburyport appeared to have the game safely in hand with just 3:25 remaining after Sam Francis’ second touchdown run put the visitors ahead 20-7. Saugus then scrapped its triple-option running attack, and quarterback C.J. Randolph aired it out in hopes of engineering two quick scoring drives.
At first, it worked. Randolph was nearly perfect on the first drive, completing 3 of 4 passes for 41 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown pass to Dan Cacciola. The entire drive took only 1:17, setting up an onside kick attempt right at the two-minute warning.
Newburyport recovered the onside kick, but on the first play from scrimmage, Wile fumbled the snap, and Saugus defensive lineman Nick Vokey recovered on the Newburyport 43-yard-line. Left with plenty of time to engineer a game winning drive, Randolph suddenly became much less efficient as a passer, possibly due in part to the fact that the skies opened for the final two minutes. Randolph threw four straight incomplete passes, giving Newburyport the ball back for good for three kneel-downs and a 20-14 victory.
“I think anxious is an understatement,” said Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano when asked how he felt in the closing minutes. “They’re a triple-option team, so we geared up for that all week. We did a good job with it. Then they come out and throw, and we have to snap into pass defense. We didn’t work on it all week. They caught us a few times, and the fumble wasn’t part of the plan, either.”
Wile had a few positive moments, but he hardly resembled the quarterback who set program records for passing yards and touchdowns as a junior last season. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 30 yards and one interception. The interception came in the second quarter on a throw that Wile tried to groove into a tight space along the sideline. The ball came out wobbly and never made it past Saugus defensive back C.J. Randolph. Working himself into game shape, Wile never attempted a pass more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
“He was limited a little in his throwing, but I think he looked all right,” Gaudiano said. “Yeah, I guess I’d say he was limited. It was good to see our run game come through. I think we’ll need to find that balance between the run and pass.”
Newburyport struggled on offense in the first half, with the exception of a 38-yard run by Tyler Cusack in the first quarter, which set up a 22-yard Brandon Trego field goal. Saugus responded on its next drive when Randolph connected with Cacciola on a 38-yard touchdown pass.
Saugus took a 7-3 lead into halftime, and it could have been worse for Newburyport. The Sachems drove to the Newburyport 1-yard-line on the final drive of the first half, before Randolph fumbled in the end zone, resulting in a Newburyport touchback.
Still, Saugus appeared to have all of the momentum on the opening drive of the second half. Between Nick Benoit, Cacciola and Ismael Minaya, Saugus ripped off one first-down run after the next, eventually moving the ball deep into Newburyport territory.
The momentum took a dramatic turn when Randolph attempted to force the ball into the end zone, and Newburyport defensive back Ian Michaels stepped in front of the intended receiver for an interception. Michaels then changed field position by taking the ball out of the end zone and returning it 68 yards.
Newburyport then established its running game with Cusack and Francis. Cusack finished with 15 carries for 122 yards, and Francis did his work in the red zone, compiling 14 carries for 61 yards and two touchdowns.
After Michaels’ interception, Newburyport outscored Saugus 17-0 over the next 13:50 of game time, turning a 7-3 deficit into a 20-7 lead.
“A lot of the game is momentum,” Gaudiano said. “They had it all on their side. One play like that changed the momentum. You could see our sideline pick up. We started playing better after. We were playing well defensively, but offensively, it kicked in, and we didn’t give them the ball back for a while.”
Newburyport 20, Saugus 14
at Stackpole Field, Saugus
N -- 3 0 7 10 -- 20
S -- 7 0 0 7 -- 14
N -- Brandon Trego 22-yard field goal, 2:18
S -- Dan Cacciola 38-yard pass from CJ Randolph (Zach Verrengia kick), 0:04
N -- Sam Francis 9-yard run (Trego kick), 2:34
N -- Trego 20-yard field goal, 7:48
N -- Francis 1-yard run (Trego kick), 3:25
S -- Cacciola 20-yard pass from Randolph (Verrengia kick), 2:02
Rushing: N -- Tyler Cusack 15-122; Francis 14-61-2; Wile 3-(-11); Colt Fontaine 1-8; S -- Randolph 13-58; Nick Benoit 8-40; Cacciola 6-19; Ismael Minaya 3-8; Justin Barrasso 1-(-3).
Passing: N -- Connor Wile 5-9-30-0; S -- 5-10-79-2.
Receiving: N -- Fontaine 3-17; Evan Habib 1-9; Ian Michaels 1-4; S -- Cacciola 3-58-2; Verrengia 1-12; Dante DelTorto 1-9.