NEW CANAAN — The alignment in front of him was different, but Darien’s Finlay Collins had a feeling what was about to happen.
Ryan O’Connell, the New Canaan star, limited on offense with a sprained ankle, was in and running across the middle. Graham Braden was set up for a screen.
And Collins sensed it, stepping in front of Drew Pyne’s pass in overtime to give the Blue Wave a 37-34 win, their fifth Turkey Bowl victory in a row and one of the most dramatic, that will just add to the lore of the state’s best rivalry.
“It was a set that they don’t run very often but I was able to jump the play and pick it off to win the game,” Collins said. “It’s unbelievable.”
It was the second time in three years that Darien won on an overtime interception. At 10-0, it secured an undefeated regular season and the top seed in the Class LL Tournament. The Blue Wave, the top-ranked team in the state, will open against Greenwich, a regular season rematch, on Tuesday night at Boyle Stadium.
After scoring 27 points in the first half — nearly one-third the total that the Rams had allowed through the first nine games — Darien took a commanding 34-10 midway through the third quarter when Pyne fumbled after being sacked and Cord Fox returned it 12 yards for a score.
But the New Canaan defense did not allow a point in the second half, and Pyne (24 of 35 for 223 yards), most often with passes to Quintin O’Connell (10 catches, 89 yards), rallied his team. The Rams scored 17 fourth-quarter points, with O’Connell’s 1-yard run trying the game at 34-34 with 21 seconds left to force overtime.
The Rams (9-1), who came in as the No. 2 team in the state, had seized momentum, and felt optimistic they could end their Thanksgiving losing streak when they held Darien to a 24-yard field goal by Riley Stewart at the start of overtime.
One play later, the Rams were in shock as Darien’s fans stormed the field to celebrate with their players. New Canaan had lost just once on its home field in nine years — to the Blue Wave in the 2013 Turkey Bowl.
“Obviously there are a bunch of teams who haven’t figured out how to beat New Canaan,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “I don’t know how we do it.”
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, in light of the comeback, took this loss harder than most, speaking silently after the game.
“We made too many mistakes too early to put ourselves in a hole, and then to fight back the way we did and then come up short is frustrating,” Marinelli said. “Take your hat off to them. They were tired at the end. The bottom line is they stepped up and they won.”
Penalties have been a problem for the Rams all season, but they have had the talent to overcome them. On Thursday those errors hurt them. After forcing Darien quarterback Brian Peters into three incompletions to open the game — two of the passes were batted down at the line — the Rams got called for a personal foul on the ensuing punt. Two plays later Collins burst through a huge hole for a 50-yard touchdown.
New Canaan had nine penalties in the game, though Darien committed 10.
While New Canaan had given up the fewest points in the FCIAC, Darien had scored the most, and Collins’ second touchdown run, from 2 yards out, made the score 27-10 at the half.
Fox’s return seemed to be the decisive blow.
“It’s tough. We’re a resilient team,” Collins said. “I think we were able to win that game because we did it together. As tired as we were, we were able to pick it up during overtime.”
Peters, who took several hard hits while exposed in the second half, completed 16 of 36 passes for 192 yards. Collins led the team with 89 yards rushing.
Braden had a big day for the Rams, rushing for 132 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown in the first half.
Trifone said Darien’s difficulty handling the blitz in the second half allowed New Canaan to come back.
“We knew we had to get the offense going and give credit to their defense,” Trifone said. “They were changing up some of their blitzes from the first half and it made things difficult. We try to show them everything and talk over every situation but they threw some wrinkles in the second half. Hats off to them.”
Collins was surrounded after the game by former teammates who have been part of Darien’s recent success in this rivalry, including Mark Evanchick and George Reed.
The loss had marginal affect on New Canaan’s standing in the Class L playoffs. Aiming for their fourth straight state title, the Rams dropped just one spot to the second seed and will have the chance to host two home games if they advance that far. They open against No. 7 Masuk on Tuesday.
Darien will face a rematch with Greenwich in the first round. In their toughest game of the year before Thursday, the Blue Wave won the earlier meeting, 42-35.
“Son of a gun. I hate playing FCIAC teams,” Trifone said.