TRUMBULL — After yielding a methodical game-opening 15-play, 71-yard scoring drive to St. Joseph, the state’s No. 1-ranked team, the Darien defensive starters came back to the sideline and regrouped.
There were three third-down conversions — the last a blown coverage that allowed David Summers to find Jaden Shirden alone for a 28-yard touchdown — and another on fourth down.
“We wanted to keep our heads up,” said Will Bothwell, the Blue Wave’s junior defensive end, of the unit’s early mindset. “We didn’t want to get down on their score. We came back and hit them back in the mouth after that.”
Consider that an understatement. Against an opponent with a multitude of game-breaking weapons, an unproven Darien defense pitched a shutout the rest of the way.
The Blue Wave tied the game in the second quarter, then after halftime scored on their first two possessions for what turned out to be a 22-7 victory this afternoon.
It seemed rumors of Darien’s small step down the rankings, at least for the foreseeable future, have been greatly exaggerated.
“We definitely came into the game thinking we have to beat them right now because they’re No. 1,” said Cooper Hancock, who in his first real test gave every indication that he could be the fourth Darien quarterback to lead the Blue Wave to a state title in four years. “That’s where we want to be. After that game I think we showed people we should be.”
The voters will determine whether Greenwich or Darien is the No. 1 team in the state come Monday, but that would be a cosmetic prize. The one of value won’t be decided until December.
Trifone, as he walked back to the locker room after warmups, admitted he was curious to discover if his players were as good as he believed. It was a reasonable question everyone in the state was also wondering, given that the Blue Wave graduated most of their starters from a year ago, with just two returning offensive linemen and none on the defensive front.
Trifone got a little foreshadowing of what to expect the previous six days.
“We probably had the best week of practice I can remember in recent history, including yesterday,” Trifone said. “Sometimes pregame the kids are a little out of focus because they’re so hyped. Yesterday was laser-focused.”
Darien (3-0) did nothing on its first two possessions against the Cadets, who shut out New Canaan in the season opener. When they embarked on a 12-play drive that started at the end of the first quarter, it was reasonable to wonder if a repeat was inevitable.
But the Blue Wave held, and Hancock led them downfield, dropping a snap but scoring from two yards out.
The defensive battle continued before Hancock, who was on target with nearly every second-half pass, started slinging the ball around the field. A 27-yard pass to Peter Bredahl set up Andrew Lucas’ 11-yard run for the go-ahead score.
On the next possession Hancock connected with TJ Cornacchia for a 15-yard touchdown.
“In the second half we kind of just stuck with our gameplan,” Hancock said. “We knew after seeing what they gave us in the first half that they were going to do the same thing.”
Asked what that was, Hancock said, “We saw that instead of having their safety shade over, if I just looked over to the right side I’d be able to hit that seam route. I hit that a couple times, which was big. I also liked our matchups with our receivers. Every one of them.”
Hancock shares one big quality with his predecessors: he is unflappable. He doesn’t get nervous.
“I was just confident,” he said. “It’s easy when your line plays like that and the receivers you know can get open against anyone.”
Line play figured to be the determining factor and the Blue Wave may not have the recent swagger, but they were no less effective. The Cadets were without Phil Pasmeg, their best receiver, who said he will be out a minimum of four weeks with a broken collarbone, but Darien was stifling.
Bothwell and Connor Fay were all over the field, forcing Summers out of his pocket, and the secondary was outstanding.
“Their quarterback was really good at scrambling so we wanted to contain him,” Bothwell said. “We had some trouble with that and then we were able to get it under control.”
Trifone, like everyone, was surprised the game didn’t turn into an offensive shootout.
“I thought it was going to be a 35-28 type of thing,” Trifone said. “I certainly didn’t think, and that’s not taking anything away from our defense, that you’re going to hold this team to seven. That’s what surprised me the most.”
Bothwell is one of the starters who came up from the junior varsity. He was injured for last week’s win over Brien McMahon and did not practice until Thursday.
“He’s a very instinctive player,” Trifone said. “He’s quick but he also has great instincts of getting around blocks or going through blocks and blowing up traps.”
Today provided a big piece to the state playoff puzzle for the FCIAC’s four likely contenders. St. Joseph may be looking at a repeat of a year ago, when it lost to Darien and ran the table to finish 12-1 with a title. The Cadets may have cost themselves the No. 1 ranking at the end of the season.
Darien and Greenwich are unbeaten and New Canaan has one loss. The Rams must still play the Cardinals before the Turkey Bowl against Darien. The outcome of those two games will go a long way toward settling the Class LL landscape.
For now, the Blue Wave proved to any doubters — and perhaps reassured themselves — that a four-peat is indeed a realistic goal.
“I think we’re here to stay for a while,” Bothwell said with a smile. “It feels good. We’re going to sleep good tonight.”