Eric McHughThe Patriot Ledger
MILTON – These Magicians almost pulled off the most surprising trick of all – making the Milton High football team disappear ... at least until Thanksgiving.
Eighth-seeded Marblehead stuffed the Wildcats into a 13-point hole in the second quarter Friday night, but the top-seeded hosts responded like the champions they aspire to be. Down 20-7, Milton blanked the Magicians over the final 28 minutes and leaned on stars like Jack Finnegan, Owen McHugh and Michael Fulton to claw their way back for a 24-20, come-from-behind win in the Division 3 quarterfinals.
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Milton (9-0) will meet No. 4 Hanover (8-2) in a neutral-site semifinal that promises plenty of firepower. Since a Week 1 loss at still-unbeaten Duxbury, the Hawks are averaging 38.4 points per game and are coming off a 40-37 shootout win over No. 5 Walpole. The Wildcats, with McHugh at quarterback, are averaging 35.3 points, having gotten their offense going after a sluggish start against Marblehead, the defending state champ.
Should be a good one.
"They pass the ball and run the ball (well) and they're super aggressive," Milton coach Steve Dembowski said of Hanover. "Walpole is an outstanding football team. We know it's going to be a battle."
This one certainly wasn't a breeze. In fact, the first-half adversity was uncharted territory for the Wildcats, who had trailed only three times all season:
They were down 7-0 to Scituate in the first quarter in Week 1 and won 33-26.
They were down 7-0 to Needham in the first quarter in Week 6 and won 41-7.
And they were down 7-0 to Minnechaug in the first quarter in last week's playoff opener and won 46-21.
So, yeah, this was a little different.
Eddie Johns' 9-yard TD run with 4:38 left in the first quarter staked Marblehead (7-2) to a 7-0 lead. Milton matched that as Finnegan capped a 13-play, 70-yard drive that bridged the first and second quarter with a 6-yard scoring run. He kicked the extra point for a 7-7 tie.
Then it was all Marblehead for a while as the Magicians used an interception to set up Johns' 1-yard run for a 14-7 lead and a third-down sack to set the stage for a 52-yard TD pass from Miles O'Neill to Zander Danforth for a 20-7 lead (the PAT was blocked) with 4:16 left in the first half.
Suddenly, the Wildcats were staggering.
That they didn't fall was a great sign for a team that came into the game with an absurd point differential of plus-200 (294 points for, 94 points against).
"It feels amazing," said Finnegan, who ran 24 times for 122 yards and two TDs. "It's a great experience playing (from behind and winning). Now in the next round we're not going to be scared (if we get down) and we're going to keep fighting."
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Milton's comeback started innocently enough as the Wildcats marched from their own 20 to a first down at the Marblehead 13 as halftime approached. The drive stalled there, though, and it seemed like almost a win for the Magicians when Finnegan kicked a 25-yard field goal to shave the lead to 20-10 with 19 seconds left in the half.
"I thought that kicking the field goal at the end of the first half to make it a 10-point game was the right move because of the situation we were in," Dembowski said. "They had played us pretty well inside the goal line. Getting the 3 there, and Finny's as good as they come with kicking, was a really big play there."
"They were playing good defense down (in the red zone)," McHugh said. "They stopped us a few times. (Taking the three points there) definitely worked out in the end. It gave us some good momentum going into the half knowing that we were getting the ball (to start the third quarter)."
Milton's second half was a thing of beauty as McHugh (16-of-24 passing for 164 yards) hit Fulton with a 45-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 20-17 with 3:11 left in the third quarter, and Finnegan plowed over from 2 yards out for the go-ahead score with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Marblehead's three second-half drives ended like this: turnover on downs, punt, punt. The Magicians picked up five first downs after halftime but the deepest they got was the Milton 38.
"I thought we were hesitant in the first half," Dembowski said. "We didn't attack as much as we usually do on defense and we were playing hesitant on offense. (At halftime) I just said, 'Guys, now we're the hunter. We were the hunted in the first half and we didn't handle it well. We gotta play aggressive, we gotta play our style and be who we are.'
"Obviously, it really showed on defense in the second half and Juice (McHugh) just kind of took over, doing what Juice does. The O-line was huge, the D-line had pressure. Miles O'Neill is a potential (college) scholarship player, and we did a good job in the second half not allowing any big plays. I'm just really proud that we were able to get our bearings at halftime and move forward."
Milton's first drive of the third quarter fizzled out at the Marblehead 11 when McHugh's fourth-down pass to Finnegan fell incomplete. Still, the Wildcats picked up four first downs on the march and set an early tone when Finnegan trucked a defender on the sideline at the end of a 22-yard run on the first play from scrimmage.
After Marblehead returned the fourth-down favor – O'Neill (15-of-20 passing for 216 yards, TD) threw wide on fourth-and-2 from the Milton 38 to stall the Magicians' first drive of the second half – the Wildcats struck. On the third play of Milton's drive, McHugh saw Fulton (5 catches for 79 yards) streaking down the right sideline and hit him in stride for a 45-yard TD. Finnegan's PAT made it 20-17.
"We saw something that we liked there so we took a shot at it," McHugh said. "Michael runs great routes. He slips by (the cornerback) and was wide open. All I had to do was give it to him and let him run."
On his dropback, McHugh first took a glance over the middle but quickly snapped his head around to find Fulton.
"It was like a high-low (combination)," McHugh said. "We had an out (route) so I looked at that first, but they hopped down on it so I went to Mike over the top."
Finnegan's 34-yard punt return out to the 50 late in the third quarter set up the winning drive. McHugh scrambled for 17 yards and later hit Fulton for 7 yards on an out-breaking route on fourth-and-3 to give the Wildcats a first-and-goal at the 7.
"We went over that yesterday," McHugh said of the play. "They were playing soft and they were giving us the under routes. Mike ran a great route and got open, so I threw it to him."
Three plays later, Finnegan crashed over from the 2 for his second TD of the night and his 15th of the season (12 runs, one catch, one pick-six and one punt return).
"It was a regular zone play we run all the time," Finnegan said. "I cut back and saw a spot and it was wide open to the end zone."
Marblehead punted on fourth-and-20 from its own 48 with 3:23 left, hoping to get a stop and get the ball back. The Wildcats did not oblige as McHugh scrambled for 5 yards on third-and-4 and Finnegan got 6 yards on a second-and-2 to help Milton run out the clock.
Next up is the high-profile showdown with fellow juggernaut Hanover, which has won six straight. Hanover QB Ben Scalzi unofficially has completed 73.3 percent of his throws for 2,186 yards with 22 TDs and 4 INTs. McHugh, unofficially, has completed 65.6 percent for 1,869 yards with 24 TDs and 3 INTs.
Like we said, this should be fun.
"It's been something that we've been working for for so long," McHugh said of the still-alive dream of a state crown. "We're excited that we've got a shot (to win it all). We're going to make the most of it."