STAMFORD — The Darien High School football team had completed the sprint from preseason favorite to undefeated and playing for the FCIAC championship.
Yet somehow along the way, the Blue Wave got nudged aside by their biggest rival, passed by New Canaan slightly in the polls, if not in public opinion, considered an underdog by most for Thursday’s annual Turkey Bowl, which also was for the conference title.
That deficit paled in comparison to the one on the scoreboard at Boyle Stadium, when Mike Collins’ 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Kraus gave the Rams a 21-0 lead just three plays into the second quarter.
A reprisal of the teams’ last meeting, a New Canaan blowout in the Class L final just under a year ago on the same field, seemed in the making.
Except on the Darien sideline.
“We kept our faith,” said Mark Evanchick, the Blue Wave’s sensational defensive end. “We’ve been in the situation before. We knew we’d put something together in the second half.”
Aided by a touchdown on the final play of the first half, and two New Canaan red zone turnovers, Darien stormed back to force overtime, took the lead on a well executed play with its quarterback on the sideline, and then completed an improbable comeback for a 28-21 win when coach Rob Trifone’s son, Bobby, intercepted an errant pass in the end zone to seal the win.
“To come back against one of the best teams in Connecticut, that says something,” Rob Trifone said.
Darien (11-0), which came in ranked No. 3 in the state polls and will likely pass New Canaan (9-1), which was No. 2, also jumped ahead to clinch the top seed in the Class L Large Division semifinals. It will host Naugatuck.
The Blue Wave’s first league title in four years, sixth overall and third straight Turkey Bowl win was memorable for many reasons, the biggest being the size of the deficit and the quality of the opponent.
“This feels really good, especially coming back from being down so much, beating these guys and playing in this atmosphere,” said quarterback Timmy Graham.
New Canaan, which was the defending champion, will have plenty to look back on and question before the state playoffs, where it will be the No. 2 seed and host Wethersfield.
Despite being held to just one first down — on a Darien penalty — in the third quarter, it had several chances to seize control. The biggest ended with turnovers five plays apart. Quarterback Mike Collins was not involved in either as the Rams went with different looks to try and confuse Darien. The Blue Wave recovered a bobbled exchange after New Canaan had a first down on the 3-yard line.
The Rams were saved when Zach Allen, the star linebacker who was sensational with 3.5 sacks, caused Graham to fumble for the third time. Darien recovered the first two, but New Canaan pounced on this one at the 8.
After a New Canaan penalty, it tried a trick play that had worked before this season: Alex LaPolice, who had the team’s second touchdown catch and added an interception, throwing to Allen. But the ball came up a little short and Hudson Hamill picked it off in the end zone.
From there, Graham threw a 56-yard pass to Will Hamernick, who outjumped two defenders for a sensational catch, and one of 37 yards to Todd Herget to the 2. Peter Archey scored on the next play to tie the game.
Graham sustained a stinger to his shoulder on the first play of overtime after a 4-yard run, and came out to watch Hamill, out of a wildcat, hit Griffin Ross, who was left uncovered.
After gaining zero yards on two plays in an attempt to tie the game, Collins (16 of 26, 287 yards), looking for his fourth touchdown pass, threw behind LaPolice, who tipped the ball. Trifone was there for the interception.
“I was just watching and that was a great call on our score by Coach Trifone,” said Graham, who after a slow start was 18 of 35 for 243 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. “I think I was a little nervous in the first half and started reading the defenses better.”
Each team turned the ball over four times. Darien finished with 295 total yards, one more than New Canaan.
New Canaan seemed on the verge of turning the game into a rout early, with Collins hitting Kraus in stride for a 46-yard touchdown on the first play of the team’s second possession and LaPolice, who made use off a great stiffarm to get free, on a 32-yard play on the second play of the ensuing possession.
But after Kraus’ second score, the New Canaan offense lost its rhythm.
“I take my hat off to them, they did a great job,” Darien coach Lou Marinelli said. “We did not play championship ball. They were down 21-0 and we couldn’t kick a field goal, couldn’t do a lot of things we needed to do, and a tremendous job by them. They hung in there and kept fighting, kept fighting, guys getting hurt right and left. They were carrying them off, taping them up. They deserved to win.”
Darien’s defensive line figured to be the deciding element coming in, and it gradually took over the game. With star end George Reed unable to play on defense after sustaining a knee injury against North Haven 11 days earlier, Sam Bowtell came in and did a good job with Evanchick, who twice left the game with an ankle injury. Bowtell was also forced to come out, while tackles Jack Griffiths and Jack Tyrrell were part of a unit that held the Rams to just 7 yards rushing.
“I thought the defensive line played outstanding today,” Evanchick said. “We stepped up and put pressure on.”
Scoring 21 unanswered points to rally after falling behind earlier this season after being down 17-0 to St. Joseph, the third FCIAC team that qualified for the state playoffs, provided a template for Darien.
“We’ve been down before and able to come back,” Trifone said. “But who would have thought down 21 in this environment?”
Marinelli said last year’s loss to Darien, which spoiled a perfect season, eased the run to the state title.
With wins a week from Saturday they may meet one more time, but Marinelli said this year’s loss has a decided difference from a year ago.
“That wasn’t for an FCIAC championship,” he said.