PEABODY — The status of Beverly's tremendous running back Marje Mulumba might have been the biggest question of all heading into next week's Division 3 North playoffs.
Friday night at Coley Lee Field, Mulumba put the entire sectional field on notice: He's back and he's as dangerous as ever.
In his first full action since suffering an injury a month ago, Mulumba scored both touchdowns and ran for 183 yards as his Panthers KO'd host Peabody, 17-7, under the lights.
"Everyone has their key guys and Marje is certainly a key guy for us," said Beverly head coach Andrew Morency, whose team will learn its playoff matchup Sunday morning.
"We were holding our breath a little with so many carries, but that's why we were cautious with him the last few weeks. We felt like this would be the night where he'd make the impact."
Looking strong on his feet and plenty able to cut around would-be tacklers, Mulumba carried the rock 26 times (plus two catches) and had by far the game's biggest play late in the third quarter. Immediately after teammate Jared Mitchell recovered a Peabody fumble, Mulumba took a handoff and appeared stopped in the backfield; he stood up a tackler, gathered his wits, cut back all the way to the far sideline, turned the corner and raced 57 yards to the end zone to break a 7-7 tie and give the Panthers (4-3) a lead they never relinquished.
"Marje doesn't go down on the first hit. I don't think he went down on the first hit once all night," said Tanners head coach Mark Bettencourt. "He's a hard runner, a North-South runner and he played a great game. That's Beverly football. They pound the ball."
In desperate need of a win to qualify for the Division 2 North playoffs, the Tanners (2-5) took the lead when Fred Koffi took the opening kick of the second half back 80 yards for the game's first points. Beverly kicked it short to keep it away from the speedy Koffi, but Steven Bua pitched pitched it back to allow his teammate to race up the middle for a momentum-changing score.
"We needed something to spark us and I thought that would be it," Bettencourt said of the touchdown, his team's first in more than 9 quarters of action going back three weeks.
On the ensuing drive, Beverly QB Danny Morency suffered an injury and had to be replaced by junior Anthony Pasquarosa. Facing 3rd-and-7 in Tanner territory, Pasquarsoa threw a dart to Duncan Moreland (5 catches, 66 yards) on a slant to convert — one play later Mulumba tied the game with a 15-yard jaunt, so the first varsity completion of Pasquarosa's career was also the biggest of the game.
"Anthony was a catalyst — he was the commander on that drive," said Andrew Morency. "That throw to Duncan was a great play. We practice that bootleg, play action a lot. He was ready for it and that's the value of having a great backup quarterback."
Peabody kept it scoreless in the early going with turnovers: Nick Vecchio had an interception on the first drive and Phil Makoci pounced on a fumble on the second. The Tanners, without starting QB Alex DeNisco due to illness, weren't able to capitalize as Beverly bottled up the inside run game.
Senior Kris Miraca played efficiently under center, Colby Therrien led the hosts with 40 rushing yards but the Panthers made just about every stop on third down: Peabody crossed midfield only twice all night and never advanced past the Panther 40-yard line.
"We ran the ball hard. Kris played well in a tough spot," Bettencourt said. "But we're still having trouble moving the ball. Our third down conversion rate is dismal. We just can't move the sticks."
Mulumba was in the middle of everything on defense for Beverly, too. More than once he displayed impressive closing speed to fill a hole that looked open, and finished with a half-dozen tackles.
"Marje and Duncan are a really good combination for us at safety. They make each other better," Andrew Morency said. "He's that much of an impact player where it has a domino effect on everything we do."
Joey Loreti made both extra points and kicked a 35-yard field goal to ice the game with 3:35 to play. Mulumba had 210 of his team's 326 yards from scrimmage and carried to convert a 3rd or 4th down on six occasions.
For the Tanners, who posted their worst regular season record of Bettencourt's tenure, the consolation round opponents will also be determined this weekend. Chris Faraca had two tackles for loss and Makoci had a sack.
"It's very frustrating. We execute and look good in practice and we come out in games and make mistakes," Bettencourt said. "We have four games left; we have to find a way to score some points."