By: Ross Laorenza
The Merrimack Tomahawks keep their playoffs hopes alive knocking off previously unbeaten Exeter 30-28. After blowing a 13 point second half lead, Merrimack kicker Kyle Newman (#16) put his team ahead with a 22-yard field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Newman said post game that this was only his second field goal attempt of the season and he had missed his other attempt. He credited his long snapper and his holder, who handled a high snap on the play.
Merrimack drove the ball 61 yards in under two minutes to take the lead. Justin Grassini (#15) looked poised in the pocket for the Tomahawks on their final drive. Grassini relied on running backs Tyler DeNeill (#5) and Joe Eichman (#8) on series of dive plays and quick passes to get into scoring position. Eichman centered the ball on third and goal before being stopped by a crowd of Blue Hawks. Newman followed with his clutch kick.
Both teams came out of the gate strong scoring on their first two possessions. After an injury to starting running back Brody Kelley on the first play from scrimmage it was up to DeNeill and Eichman to carry the load on the ground. DeNeill plunged in from 3 yard out to give Merrimack and early 6-0 lead. After the extra point they lead 7-0 with 8:27 remaining.
Exeter responded with and excellent drive utilizing their powerful Wing-T attack. Senior Jackson Allen(#14) was a forced to be reckoned with. Even with Merrimack crowding the box he was successul converting several short yardage situations. Facing 4th and 2 from inside the 9, quarterback Kyle Ball(#9) kept it himself for a 9 yard touchdown run. After the extra point the game is tied 7-7.
Kyle DeNeill handled the majority of the rushes on Merrimack's second possession. The nine play drive took 2:51 off the clock and ended with a DeNeill 3 yard score. With the extra point added on Merrimack goes up 14-7.
The power rushing of Exeter tied the scores. Runs by Cam Flanagan(#23) and Jackson Allen gave the Tomahawk's a 3rd and six at their own 37. Kyle Ball broke free for a 36 yard scamper inside Merrimack territory. Four plays later facing a 4th and 2 Ball was able to draw the Tomahawks offside, making it 1st and goal at the 4. Jackson Allen bowled over a would be tackler into the end zone for the score on the ensuing play. With the extra point the game was knotted again, this time 14-14.
The defenses steeped up their game as we progressed into the second quarter. Cam Flanagan picked off a Grassini on a deep pass intended for Ian Roberts.
Exeter began to move the ball well with runs from Ball and Allen. Even facing a 4th and 2 near midfield the Blue hawks went for it, giving the ball to Allen who ripped ahead for the 1st. The drive would eventually stall after a holding penalty forced Exeter into a 3 and 23. The game saw it's first punt with 3:14 remaining in the first half.
Grassini led an impressive 75 yard drive in the closing minutes of the half. He completed a huge third down on a pass to Roberts inside the twenty. A swing pass to DeNeill gave Merrimack 1st and goal at the 6. After two unsuccessful attempts to run the ball in, Grassini connected with Roberts on an underneath route for a 3-yard touchdown pass. Extra point good. At the half, Merrimack: 21, Exeter: 14.
The Blue Hawks would get the ball to open the 3rd quarter. After three short runs they faced 4th and 1 at their own 39 and boldly went for it. For the first time in the game, however, Jackson Allen was stopped short and Merrimack took over inside Exeter territory.
Looking to increase their lead Merrimack drove into the red zone, but an interception by Kyle Ball at the goal line stooped the drive cold. With their backs to the end zone Exeter gained just enough yards on 1st and 2nd down to give the offense some breathing room. But, an incomplete pass on third down forced a punt.
Merrimack stuck to the ground game after the turnover on their previous drive, with rushes by Eichman and Roberts. It would be Eichman on 2nd and goal who bounced outside to the right and put his team ahead two scores. Crucial moment in the game. Merrimack went for 2 and did not get in. The lead is only 13 points, 27-14 leaving the door open for an Exeter comeback.
The Blue Hawks entered the 4th quarter still trailing 13, but quickly rebounded. A 75 yard drive at the beginning fourth resulted in a touchdown from Ball to 6'5" Hunter Long. After continually running the ball, the play action pass was a viable option in the fourth quarter for Exeter.
After a Merrimack 3-and-out, Exeter took over with 6:08 remaining. The home crowd was getting very tense as it appeared the failed two conversion could be their downfall. The Blue Hawks churned on down the field, racking up yards and burning clock. Now inside the red zone, Ball connected again with his big target Long setting up 1st and goal at the 4 yard line. From there Mason Wallace (#6) took it ahead for a 4 yard touchdown run. The extra point gave Exeter their first lead of the game, 28-27 with 2:27 left in the game.
Merrimack didn't give up! "We practice a one minute offense," said Tomahawk head coach Kip Jackson. They executed that offense to perfections. With quick passes and short runs Merrimack put themselves in field goal position with less than 30 seconds. As I stated above Kyle Newman and the special teams unit played heroes with a clutch 22-yard field goal. 30-28.
One final heave by Kyle Ball was intercepted by Tyler DeNeill as time expired. Final score, Merrimack: 30, Exeter: 28.
After coming back so many times this season Exeter is dealt their first loss of the season. "We failed to execute throughout the game," said Blue Hawks coach Bill Ball.
Merrimack improves to 5-3 and will have to chance to make the playoffs next week at home against Timberlane. After we saw Pinkerton fall from the ranks of the undefeated two weeks ago, tonight it was Exeter's turn leaving Goffstown as the only unbeaten team in D-I. It is going to be a wild end of the season.
From Merrimack, New Hampshire; Ross Laorenza: New Hampshire Notebook