Tough defense, a strong running game and discipline. That's the blueprint of Exeter Blue Hawk football. Bill Ball has been running that system for years and it continues to work. It worked again on Friday night, as Exeter only gave up 1 offensive touchdown to an explosive Memorial team, they used 6 different ball carries and scored 3 rushing TDs, they had 0 turnovers and only 1 penalty all game. That's Exeter Blue Hawk football right there.
The result was a 24-14 win for Exeter over Manchester Memorial, in a D-I clash where both teams were 5-2 coming in. Sophomore QB/DB Kyle Ball rushed for 2 TDs while Nicholas Flodstrom rushed for 103 yards and 1 TD. Neil Vorster, Chris Henry and Mark Cicchini led the way on defense for the Blue Hawks, who will host Portsmouth in the D-I quarterfinals in 2 weeks.
With that being said, Exeter and Memorial are actually 2 very evenly matched football teams. Memorial has some explosive skill players like Daquan Henclewood, Isaac Velez, Harmel Nkongolo, Tyler Pelletier and Bobby Cipolla. The Crusaders were also able to match up with Exeter's size up front, with guy like Anthony Angerami, Tom Joyce and Derrick Terrezano.
So what was the difference? Converting in the red zone. Exeter scored every time they got there, whereas Memorial had 2 trips to the red zone where they came away with 0 points. That's the difference in the game right there.
Memorial's first trip to the red zone came on the game's first drive. Vorster made a big hit for a loss of 3 yards. Then on 3rd and 11 from their own 39 yard line Velez connected with Nkongolo for a 13 yard gain and 1st down. Henclewood ran for a 10 yard gain and 1st down. Then Memorial started flip flopping quarterbacks, with Velez and Mitchell Coy alternating snaps. The Crusaders advanced into the red zone before the drive was stalled. Then it was 4th and 3 from the Exeter 19 yard line. Memorial ran a misdirection running play, which got stuffed by Vorster. Turnover on downs.
Exeter gets the ball for the first time, they get into the red zone and they convert. The Blue Hawks went to work with Shane Quimby, Flodstrom and Cicchini alternating carries. Quimby rushed for a 7 yard gain up the middle on 3rd and 1 from his own 30 yard line. Then it was Quimby again converting, this time for a 15 yard gain on 3rd and 9 from the EHS 38 yard line. Ball completed a 17 yard pass to Quimby, and then Cicchini picked up 10 yards on the ground. Then it was 4th and 6 from the Memorial 8 yard line. The Blue Hawks elected to go for a field goal, and Matt Oppici's kick is good from 25 yards out. 3-0 Exeter, with 2.9 seconds left in the 1st quarter.
The two teams would trade scores for the rest of the 1st half. Memorial takes a 7-3 lead on a 1 yard TD dive by Velez. The score was set up by a 14 yard pass to Cipolla on 3rd and 8 from their own 46. Then Velez picked up 11 yard on a QB keeper, followed by a 19 yard run by Velez. That set up 1st and goal from the 10, and then Henclewood rushed for 9 yards down to the 1.
Then Exeter answered back. Ball completed a pass to Cicchini for a 1st down, after Cicchini had slipped and fallen to the ground. Then Cicchini rushed for a 6 yard gain on 3rd and 3 from the Memorial 38 yard line. Then Andrew Cicchini made a big block which freed up Flodstrom for an 11 yard run. Angerami made a good tackle for the Crusaders, but then Flodstrom rushed for a 9 yard pickup to set up 1st and goal from the 3. Joyce made a good tackle for a loss of 1, but then Ball dove into the end zone from the 1. 10-7 Exeter, 2:32 left in the 1st half.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball took a big bounce just inside the 30 yard line and was caught by Henclewood who took it to the house. Henclewood got a good block, broke a couple tackles and was off to the races, down the right side line for the 78 yard kickoff return for TD. He has a good combination of speed, size and strength which makes him a big play threat when running the football or returning kicks. Memorial takes a 14-10 lead , but unfortunately for them that would be their last score of the game.
Exeter answers right back on their next drive. Flodstrom had a couple of strong runs, but then Ball went down for a sack as Gabe Jeffers led the charge and Sam Gilot and Terrezano were also in on the hit. Then came a crucial 3rd and 11 attempt from the Memorial 42 yard line. Cicchini was clutch, picking up 11 yards, just enough for the 1st down. Then Flodstrom rushed for 21 yards to set up 1st and goal from the 10. A couple plays later Flodstrom ran in a 6 yard TD. Exeter takes a 17-14 lead with 23.1 seconds left in the 1st half.
Memorial ball, with time running out on the 1st half. Coy hits Velez with a 20 yard pass, but the 1st half ends with Exeter leading 17-14.
Memorial's defense steps up and forces an Exeter punt on the first drive of the 2nd half. Crusaders ball, and this possession would turn out to be key in determining the outcome of the game. Vorster made a good hit behind the line of scrimmage and then Flodstrom finished the tackle. Allen Jackson made a hit for a loss of yardage for the Blue Hawks. Memorial then had a crucial 3rd and 13 attempt from their own 18 yard line, and Coy connected with Nkongolo on a 38 yard completion. Velez picks up 2 yards and a 1st down on 4th and short to advance to the Exeter 33 yard line. Memorial was whistled for a holding (only the 2nd penalty all game to that point). Coy hit Pelletier for a 12 yard gain, and then it was Coy to Pelletier again, this time for an 11 yard gain. Henry and Vorster teamed up for a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. That brought up 3rd and goal for Memorial on the Exeter 13 yard line. Coy threw the ball to Pelletier, who was open in the right corner of the end zone. The ball fell through Pelletier's hands incomplete. Memorial goes for a FG on 4th down, but the kick from 30 yards out was no good. Exeter dodges a bullet and still leads 17-14.
Exeter ball now, trying to build on their 3 point lead. They got back to work with the running game. Chris Kelley runs for a 13 yard gain on 3rd and 8 from the EHS 22 yard line. Exeter was then called for a holding (their only penalty all game). Then Flodstrom rushed for a 5 yard gain on a crucial 4th and 1 attempt from the EHS 44 yard line. Then Ball picked up 14 yards on a QB keeper, with some elusive moves and good speed in the open field. Then Kelley runs for 3 yards on on 4th and 1 from the Memorial 12 yard line. Gilot and Nate Hall both made strong tackles, bringing up 4th and goal from the 3 yard line. Ball scored from 3 yards out on a keeper. That TD was huge for Exeter, making it a 2 possession game, 24-14 with only 3:32 left in the 4th quarter. These guys always convert in the red zone.
Memorial now had their backs against the wall. Coy again hit Pelletier, this time for a 16 yard pickup. Then Coy hit Cipolla for a 9 yard gain on 4th and 2 from their own 46. But then an interception by Cicchini sealed the win for the Blue Hawks.
Regardless of what happens next weekend, Exeter will host Portsmouth in the D-I East championship game in 2 weeks. In the D-I North Conference, we know Bedford is the top seed and will host the title game. How they play is still to be decided. It's either Concord or Memorial. Memorial beat Concord head to head, so they hold the tie-breaker, but the Crusaders are now 1 game behind Concord in the standings, at 5-3 while Concord is 6-2. Concord can clinch the playoff spot with a win over Exeter next week, OR if Memorial loses to Goffstown. Memorial gets the spot if they beat Goffstown AND Concord loses to Exeter.