SALEM — What started out as a sometimes ugly defensive slugfest on Friday night at Bertram Field finished with all the drama one could stand.
Peabody looked like it was going to cruise to an unbeaten regular season and a Northeastern Conference Lynch Division title when it led Salem 20-0 early in the fourth quarter.
Then like a tidal wave, the Witches erupted for 26 fourth-quarter points. But it was the final two that escaped them which were the difference. Devante Ozuna was stopped half a yard short on a two-point conversion attempt with no time left, giving Peabody a 27-26 win over their longtime rivals.
“I don’t know how many times Peabody and Salem have played over the years but that has to be one of the best football games contested between these two teams,” Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt said. “That is a very good football team over there in Salem.”
There was no indication a frantic finish was on tap when Reymi Andino returned a fumble for a touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter to give the Tanners (8-0) a three-touchdown lead.
That’s when the Witches’ (6-2) high-flying offense caught fire. Salem needed only three plays after the fumble return to get on the board as Corey Grimes (17-of-31, 248 yards, 3 TD) hit Quinn Rocco Ryan for a 30 yard score to make it 20-7.
After a three and out by Peabody on the next series, the Witches kept right on coming. Grimes and company needed only 90 seconds to march 66 yards and cut the gap to 20-14 as Ozuna caught a pass along the right sideline and took it 37 yards for a score with 6:51 to go.
“Corey is everything we thought he’d be and 25 times more. He is a warrior,” Bettencourt said.
Desperately in need of something to stem Salem’s momentum, Peabody tried to bully its way to the first downs that would kill the clock. But a false start and two runs were followed by a pick six from Grimes, who took Salem’s third interception of Luke Maglione 34 yards to tie the game after a missed extra point.
With the Salem crowd in a frenzy, the Tanners tried to drive for a potential winning score as the clock ticked down. Jaden Roman, however, had other ideas as he broke free for a 59-yard score to give Peabody back the lead with 2:38 left.
Salem tried to answer one more time as Ozuna hit Grimes for 34 on a reverse pass to get the drive going. The Witches reached the Peabody 2 before a holding penalty and an incompletion left four seconds on the clock and the ball at the 12.
On the final play, Grimes threw up a prayer that a leaping Julian Ortiz answered with a spectacular catch that set up the dramatic conversion attempt.
“We knew that coach (Matt) Bouchard was going to go for two there. I would have done the same thing. Our guys just made a great play on a great player,” Bettencourt said.