WESTERLY — Stopping Westerly High's Zack Tuck and the team's rushing attack has been a difficult task for most opponents this season.
And when the Bulldogs leaned on Tuck and the offensive line in the second half, they responded.
Tuck rushed for 241 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bulldogs to a hard-fought 28-14 win over Stonington High before an estimated 3,200 fans at Augeri Field in the annual Thanksgiving Day football tussle between the two schools.
It was Westerly's fourth straight victory against Stonington. The two teams did not play last season due to the pandemic. Stonington leads the series, 74-70, with 17 ties.
Tuck's 241 yards came on 31 carries. He completed the season with 1,774 yards and 22 rushing TDs.
The junior was quick to credit the play of the line for his success.
"We work well together; we have each other's backs," Tuck said. "It's a family thing. I do my job and they do their job and it works out perfectly."
Stonington (5-5) had pulled to within a touchdown when quarterback Dorian White (11 of 22, 155 yards) threw a 67-yard scoring pass to Luke Lowry down the Stonington sideline with 9:22 left in the game.
Lowry had two touchdown catches in the game, matching a record held by a number of receivers in the long rivalry. Mike Greene was the last Stonington player to achieve the feat with two TD receptions in 2003.
The pass initially appeared like it might be intercepted, but the ball deflected off the hands of a Westerly defensive back. Lowry did well to come down with the ball and eluded a few Westerly defenders to score. The touchdown cut Westerly's lead to seven, 21-14.
The Bulldogs (8-3) responded with one of their biggest drives of the season, moving 71 yards in eight plays. Tuck had runs of 14, 20, 3, 5 and 6 yards on the drive. Westerly was also aided by a face mask penalty on the Bears. Tuck scored standing up to make it 28-14 with 4:11 remaining after Chad Mayne's fourth PAT kick of the game.
"It was huge," Tuck said of the scoring drive. "I felt like they probably would have scored [again] because they had a full head of steam right then. So we probably would have gone to overtime if we had not scored."
Westerly senior defensive back Joe Gervasini came up with an interception on Stonington's next drive to essentially seal the victory for the Bulldogs. Gervasini stepped in front of a Stonington receiver on the Westerly sideline.
"The quarterback rolled out and the receiver (Josiah Blackman) did a little hitch. He was rolling out so I didn't know if I should commit to the quarterback or stay with my man. But I stayed with him, he threw it and I was able to catch it," Gervasini said.
Westerly coach Stanley Dunbar, coaching in his first Thanksgiving Day game, said the play was crucial.
"That's the play of his season. For him to make a play like that in this moment is huge," Dunbar said. "He's a kid that grew up in Westerly his whole life. I believe his father went to this school and played here. He's one of those legacy type of kids and for him to make a play like that on Thanksgiving is something he will remember the rest of his life."
Westerly scored on its first possession of the game, Tuck running it in from 36 yards with 7:56 left in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs made it 14-0 when Drew Mason scored standing up over the right side with 6:59 left in the second quarter. Quarterback Lance Williams threw a 26-yard pass to Jimmy Powers on the drive.
Stonington was also called for pass interference on the drive, putting the ball at the Bears' 14-yard line.
Stonington scored its first touchdown when White hit Lowry in stride for a 36-yard scoring play with 5:22 left in the half. Ethan Mahoney's kick made it 14-7 at the half.
Bears coach A.J. Massengale said an incident occurred at halftime involving a Westerly coach and several players near the Stonington locker room.
He said the incident was the worst he had observed in his 19 years of coaching. Dunbar said he was unaware of the incident, but said "if that's the case, I will address it."
Stonington had limited Tuck to minus-2 yards in the second quarter and appeared to be gaining momentum.
"We were talking as a team in the room and we pretty much said if we we don't pick up our game we are going to lose," Tuck said. "Obviously, we are rivals and all those guys on Stonington, I am pretty close with a bunch of them. It's just good getting out there and playing with everybody."
Westerly scored on its first drive of the second half, which has happened several times this season. Westerly moved 67 yards in eight plays, capped by a 2-yard TD run by Tuck. Tuck also had runs of 25 and 13 yards on the drive.
"I think earlier in the game my game plan was to be more balanced and try to attack them passing the ball doing a lot of different things," Dunbar said. "I don't know how many times we passed the ball in that drive coming out of the half (it was none). But I was just, like, Tuck's my guy. He's been great all season. Let's get some tight ends on the field, control the clock and run the ball."
Massengale said Tuck is a strong runner.
"If he gets the edge, he's tough to handle," Massengale said. "They strain you with some of the formations and you have to be able to get to him quick and early, and we struggled to do that."
Stonington's Lucian Tedeschi, the team's most dynamic offensive threat, was injured early in the game and caught just two passes. He did not have a rushing attempt. Massengale said in a different situation Tedeschi would not have played.
Westerly two-way lineman Mitch McLeod missed the second half with an injury.