Defense comes up big as Merrimack Valley football beats Pembroke, 21-6
Merrimack Valley's Tucker Burt clutches the ball after a run during the game against Pembroke on Friday night, October 4, 2013.
Pembroke's Chris Cushing, right, tries to remain on his feet before being tackled by Merrimack Valley's Buddy Hughes, left, during the game Friday night, October 4, 2013.
Before the season, Merrimack Valley High football Coach David Jackson didn’t hesitate when asked what he figured the strength of his team was going to be this year. He pointed to the Pride’s up-tempo passing game, piloted by talented junior quarterback Ivan Niyamugabo, and so far the prognostication’s been accurate. The offense has been there for MV, which surpassed 20 points three times, 30 points twice and 40 points once in starting the season 3-1.
It wasn’t there last night, however. The Pride moved the ball at will, but on a night when drive after drive into Pembroke territory kept fizzling without points going on the board, Jackson had to put his trust in his defense – a once-frightening notion, considering the 41.6 points per game it allowed in last year’s winless season.
Times have changed at Merrimack Valley, and last night provided just another bit of proof. That once-leaky defense was airtight against Pembroke (1-4), stifling the Spartans on series after series and delivering a 21-6 win, its third time this year holding an opponent to one score.
“When (Pembroke) went into the things we’ve seen on film, our kids were well-coached by the defensive coaches,” said Jackson, whose team won the Cloe-O’Brien Bowl, given to the winner of the rivalry. “They weren’t satisfied with the way they played (last year). They were insulted and felt like they were letting us down all the time. So they just went to work.”
It was also an impressive night for the Spartans defense, which held the high-flying Pride to its fewest points in a win, which Coach Brian Gridley said was bittersweet.
“I was proud of how our boys fought, obviously disappointed with the fact that we came up on the short end of the scoreboard,” he said. “I was proud of how our defense played. … I was impressed with our fight. That’s what we as coaches challenge them each week, to embrace the struggle, and embrace the fight. That’s something to build on for this next week.”
The final score revealed a statement night for the MV defense, but early indications were that the game would be anything but. The defense was actually caught on its heels on the game’s first play from scrimmage, as Pembroke’s Vinny Dustin (12 carries, 46 yards; 4-for-7, 70 yards) took a pitch from quarterback Chris Cushing and hit an open Keenan Abbott (five catches, 76 yards) down the sideline for a 48-yard gain to the 37-yard line. Three plays later, Dustin slipped in for a 2-yard score, putting the Spartans ahead, 6-0.
The Pride quickly regained control, as Tucker Burt (the game’s MVP with 33 carries for 221 yards) capped a 62-yard drive on the ensuing series with a 26-yard scamper, and it scored on its second drive as well when Niyamugabo (nine carries, 80 yards) got into the end zone from a yard out on 4th-and-goal to make it 14-6.
MV continued to march on offense, but finishing with points became a stiffer challenge. The Pride made it into Pembroke territory on six of its next seven drives (and to its own 46 in the exception), even reaching the red zone twice, but kept getting stymied by an opportunistic Spartans defense and its own mistakes. MV turned the ball over on downs five times and fumbled on the 5-yard line for the other stop, resulting in zero points – and keeping what could have been a blowout to a still-tight one-score contest.
The frustrations meant the defense had to keep Pembroke at bay. And Jackson could tell his team wanted the chance.
“They don’t mind being on the field,” he said. “We turn the ball over, they get excited.”
The defense delivered, holding Pembroke without a first down in that stretch, and the offense finally capitalized on the seventh drive, as Burt’s 20-yard run made it 21-6 with 2:37 to go. The defense continued its show, keeping Pembroke from mounting a serious challenge and putting the finishing touches on another chapter in the turnaround from last year.
“We did awesome, we fired off the ball like we were supposed to, played our gaps,” defensive end Jake Davidson said. “Last year, we kind of got chippy with each other. Now, we’re all staying together, we’ve got each other’s backs.”