In the 28-13 win Friday night in the , the Black Knights seemed to have an answer each time Holliston scored or made a big play.
Both times Holliston scored Stoughton responded with lengthy touchdown drives. If Holliston was driving the ball, Stoughton would come up with a sack or interception.
"We toughed it out, we [played] Stoughton football," head coach Greg Burke said. "We weren't quitting and that's how you got to do it. You have to battle, fight."
"We could have executed better but we made the plays that counted, that needed to be [made]," senior captain Aaron Mack said.
No play, however, was bigger than Adam Leonard's interception with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Stoughton had a 20-13 lead and Holliston had advanced the ball to the Black Knights 33, looking for the game-tying score. Shawn Connolly came up with a sack on second down, driving the Panthers back and then on the very next play, Leonard, playing linebacker, saw a screen pass developing and positioned himself to make an interception in open space, giving Stoughton the ball back at its own 45.
Nine plays later (including penalties), a 21-yard touchdown run by Mack, followed by a two-point conversion run by Frankie Morris, effectively put the game away, giving Stoughton a 15-point lead, 28-13, with 1:22 left.
"Leonard is one of the smartest kids - he's the heart and soul of our team," Burke said. "We told him to watch that screen, we weren't going to get beat on it."
"Their [split ends] were wide so I knew something was going on and the quarterback dropped back further than five steps - and we've been practicing that all week. So I just saw running back go to the side and I ran up. He was getting pressure by the line...and [the quarterback] just threw a bad pass and I was right there to make that pick," Leonard said.
Any chance of an improbable Holliston comeback ended with Malachi Baugh coming up with an interception with less than a minute to play, putting the Stoughton offense back on the field to take a knee.
Mack had two rushing touchdowns, Morris had a rushing touchdown, and quarterback Dan Eckler had a touchdown pass to Andrew Kelly.
Holliston scored first to go up 7-0 on its opening possession, but Stoughton rallied with an 81-yard scoring drive on its first possession, highlighted by a 30-yard Mack run. Morris scored from seven yards out with 1:27 left in the first.
Stoughton went up 14-7 on a one-yard run by Mack with 5:11 left in the second quarter.
Holliston threatened to tie the game at the end of the first half advancing the ball to the Stoughton 8-yard line with six seconds left in the second quarter. But, the Black Knights kept the Panthers off the scoreboard when pressure from pass rusher Joey Wilder set up a Morris sack to end the half.
The game was delayed almost 20 minutes midway through the third quarter due to a power outage at the Holliston football field. After play resumed, Holliston scored but missed the extra point so the Panthers trailed 14-13.
Stoughton started its ensuing possession on the Holliston 38 with 4:54 left in the third. Fourteen plays and 8:18 later, Eckler found Kelly in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Stoughton missed the extra point, but increased the lead to 20-13.
Leonard then came up with his interception on the next Holliston drive, followed by the Mack touchdown run.
At quarterback, Eckler only threw four passes (with two completions and a touchdown), but had two first down runs on quarterback keepers and combined with Leonard, who plays center on the offensive line, to draw the Holliston defense offside four times. Eckler showed poise under center.
"He's a smart kid," Burke said of Eckler. "He had some big passes, he's going to be good, he ran a couple of nice ones. He's the key for us."
Running backs Mack, Morris and Baugh proved tough to bring down all game.
On defense, Wilder provided a constant pass rush for Stoughton. He combined with Mike Connelly for a sack to end Holliston's second drive; stuffed the Holliston ball carrier (with an assist from Kelly) to force a turnover on downs late in the second quarter; and set up the Morris sack to end the first half.
These two teams , with Holliston beating Stoughton in Stoughton, 28-15. The Panthers were a Division 3 playoff team in 2011, winning the Tri-Valley League (large) championship.
Stoughton, 1-0, will travel to Taunton next Friday to for its first meeting with the newest member of the Hockomock League.
Josh Brown contributed reporting.