GREENWICH — Greenwich quarterback Gavin Muir jogged onto the field at Cardinal Stadium tonight, rubbed his hands and looked into the huddle. As he emerged, he looked ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Ridgefield, on an uphill slope most of the game, had just used Matt Lombardo’s touchdown to get within five points in a heavyweight battle of Class LL contenders that was one of the rare FCIAC games this year to meet the hype. Muir and the offense returned with 5:10 left on the clock.
By the time they departed, it was to grab the lunch-pails and head home following a 26-21 win that had major implications on the state playoff race.
Three times on that final drive, Muir was faced with third-down situations. He completed a 15-yard pass to Jael Negron on the first and an 11-yarder to Negron on the next. The third left the Cardinals inches short of running out the clock on the Ridgefield 49. The offensive line on fourth down provided just enough room for Muir to get past the chains and end the game.
“On that final drive we knew that this was our quote-unquote championship drive,” Muir said. “If we wanted to make a run at states, this was our drive. We just did what we do in practice.”
Well, maybe not always. Greenwich coach John Marinelli said practices have lacked intensity the past two weeks. His team had rolled easily to a 6-0 start, and even a win over New Canaan caused modest sweat.
This was the chance to see whether the Cardinals possessed the necessary mettle to achieve ambitious goals now getting clearer in focus. They passed the test. And Marinelli showed his offense the confidence by not getting conservative and punting the ball away at the end, playing to win rather than not to lose.
“That’s huge and ultimately that’s the offense,” Marinelli said. “So the offense closed the game out the last five minutes and that’s a great job by them. We were able to run the ball and wore them down in the second half. The last five minutes and 30 seconds of a game, that’s what you want a championship offense to do. To be able to grind it out like that.”
Greenwich is now 7-0 and in a good place. There should be little trouble next week against Danbury before a difficult finish against Xavier and Staples.
“We need to be in games like that and I said it earlier, it’s game seven for them,” Marinelli said of Ridgefield. “You’re facing a team that’s do or die. They’re not going to stop. I give them a ton of credit. They gave us everything we could handle and more.”
The Tigers were desperate and showed it. They now are 5-3 — all three losses are to Top 5 teams — and are a twist here and a turn there from being 7-1 and putting December plans in ink instead of pencil.
“We made too many mistakes in the first half and we never overcame them,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “I thought defensively we actually played well. Offensively we were slow to get started, mostly on us. We settled down in the second half and were able to do a much better job offensively.”
A sequence late in the first half will haunt the Tigers if they are not able to get back into the postseason.
Neither team moved the ball on its first three possessions before Muir (21 of 34 for 261 yards), who stood in the pocket and took repeated hits to connect with his receivers, completed a 49-yard touchdown pass to Elias Gianopoulos with 1:01 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinals recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Zach Moore’s 42-yard field goal made it 10-0.
Ridgefield used its own fumble recovery and got the ball at the Cardinals’ 31 with 2:42 left in the half. Gatto hit Luke Gaydos for 30 yards.
But a combination of a run stop, penalties, a controversial call and missed field goal kept the Tigers off the board. Gatto (28 of 44 for 285 yards, three touchdowns) appeared to hit Gaydos in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard score. One official called it a touchdown but after a discussion it was changed to an incompletion.
“We watched it on the HUDL and he’s clearly got possession and both feet in bounds,” Callahan said, referring to the video service used to film games. “I’m not going to blame the officials, but we’ve lost to St. Joe’s and Greenwich and we’ve had touchdowns called back in both games and the margin of victory has been less than a touchdown so it is frustration to say the least.”
Jael Negron’s 45-yard reception set up Moore’s 42-yard field goal to end the half.
Ridgefield opened the third quarter with a 10-play, 77-yard drive that ended with Gatto’s 8-yard scoring pass to Evan Wein. Gatto then hit Jackson Mitchell in stride for a 42-yard play that gave the Tigers a 14-13 lead.
Greenwich went back ahead five plays later, with Henry Saleeby’s 40-yard catch leading to Tysen Comizio’s 19-yard run that made the score 19-14.
In perhaps the most pivotal momentum swing of the game, Finbar Doyle hit Gatto as he released a pass and Tyler Blizzard made an interception that led to Comizio’s 2-yard touchdown run.
“That gave us momentum on offense and we went down there and scored so that’s just again the defense picking us up,” Muir said.
The Tigers may be one of the eight best teams in the state, let alone one of the eight best in Class LL, but their season could now end on Thanksgiving.
“If they’re No. 2 in the state we’re right around there,” Callahan said. “Our strength of schedule has got to be one of the best in the state and we get through these battles. People beat us but no one beat us down. If we get the opportunity to be in the playoffs I think you will see we’ll be pretty successful.”
The Cardinals likely are going to have that chance. And if that final drive tonight is any indication, they, too, could be pretty successful.