No. 3 Newtown guaranteed that tonight, taking advantage of uncharacteristic turnovers from sixth-ranked Darien — winner of the last three state titles — in a 26-15 quarterfinal victory.
The Nighthawks will play at No. 2 Greenwich on Sunday after the Cardinals routed seventh-seeded New Britain, 49-13.
Special teams, which had been a strength for Darien all season, were the Blue Wave’s downfall as a fumbled kick return set up a Newtown touchdown in the second quarter and a fumbled punt wasted precious seconds off Darien’s comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
“Special teams has been a strong suit for us all year long,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “Even the Turkey Bowl; as bad as we played in the Turkey Bowl (a 17-14 loss to New Canaan on Thanksgiving), our special teams came shining through. You can’t make those kinds of mistakes against a team like Newtown. They’re a very good football team, I give them a lot of credit, but two crucial turnovers, both at crucial spots where we had momentum in both situations and just gave it right back.”
After Darien forced a three-and-out on Newtown’s opening possession, the Blue Wave drove down to the Nighthawk three, but were stopped on a fourth-down try.
Newtown responded with a six-minute, 95-yard drive capped off by a two-yard touchdown plunge from Dan Mason.
The Nighthawks converted four third-down opportunities in the drive.
Darien’s Andrew Lucas then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Newtown jumped on it at the Darien 23-yard line.
Again, third downs proved to be the difference as Newtown quarterback Luke Melillo picked up a first down with a scramble to the Darien six on a third-and-15.
On the next third down, Mason would make it 13-0 early in the second on another two-yard run.
“We expected them to come out in some serious running stuff and they did and we were able to put it down, so they went to the next option, throwing the ball,” said Blue Wave middle linebacker Connor Fay, a senior captain. “And shame on us for not stepping up and defending that. We took away their first target and we were proud of that, but if you can defend all facets, that’s the result.”
Newtown then forced a Darien three-and-out and started its next drive from the Blue Wave 36-yard line.
Darien was finally able to force a fourth down, but Devin O’Connell hit a 32-yard field goal to put Newtown up, 16-0.
The Blue Wave flashed signs of life late in the half as Sam Wilson blocked a punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety, but Darien couldn’t make anything happen on its next drive and Newtown’s hurry-up offense ended with another O’Connell 32-yard field goal to give the Nighthawks a 19-2 halftime lead.
Defense dominated most of the third quarter as Newtown’s Jack Zingaro picked off a Cooper Hancock pass on the second play from scrimmage and, later in the quarter, the Nighthawks stopped Darien on a fourth down at the Newtown 31.
But the Blue Wave defense did its part and held firm behind Fay and three sacks from Will Bothwell.
Eventually Darien cut the deficit to 19-9 with a minute remaining in the quarter on a 25-yard strike from Hancock to Peter Bredahl.
With all the momentum, Darien forced a Newtown punt from its own two-yard line, but a fumble on the return by the normally sure-handed Tyler Herget was recovered by the Nighthawks near midfield.
The Darien defense rose to the occasion once again, and the Blue Wave offense went 75 yards in just over a minute to make it 19-15 on Hancock’s 29-yard fade to TJ Cornacchia.
With just under four minutes left, Darien needed a stop to have any chance at a miracle comeback, but Mason slammed the door with a 30-yard run at the two minute mark and a nine-yard score with just five seconds left on the clock.
Mason’s final tally both ended the Darien season and set the single-season touchdown mark for Newtown at 31.
“I wouldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to do it with,” said Fay, a three-year starter and two-time state champion, of his career at Darien. “At the end of the day, we’re all going to have to go home tonight and ask if we gave it our all and did we do it for each other? If we can say that truthfully to ourselves and to our brothers, then we’ll be able to live with ourselves. And if we can’t, shame on us.”