NEW CANAAN — Dare we use the “L” word in describing New Canaan High School’s 31-28 victory over Masuk in Tuesday’s Class L state football quarterfinals?
Were the defending champion Rams really lucky to win?
“That,” said Rams coach Lou Marinelli, “is exactly what we were.”
After an evenly played 14-all first half, the No. 2 seeded Rams (10-1) were handed two gift touchdowns by the No. 7 seed Panthers (7-4). Not one, but two unforced Masuk errors on punt snaps resulted in a pair of third-quarter scores and a 28-14 lead.
“I tried to forget that,” Masuk coach Joe Lato said about the two plays that helped land New Canaan in Monday’s semifinals against No. 6 Notre Dame of West Haven. “We shot ourselves in the foot a lot tonight.”
The first mistake was when Masuk punter Peter Fox mishandled the snap when the Panthers were punting from their own 20 midway through the third quarter. The Rams recovered at the 13 and three plays later Spencer Williams scored from one yard out.
On Masuk’s next possession the punt snap from the Masuk 32 sailed over Fox’s head. The Rams recovered at the 24 and this time it took seven plays before quarterback Drew Pyne scored from six yards out.
To New Canaan’s credit, it converted the Masuk mistakes into 14 points. But even up 28-14 going into the fourth quarter, the Rams weren’t safe.
Marinelli shudders to think about what might have been if not for the heroic fourth-quarter performance from running back Graham Braden, who carried 10 times in the final quarter for 94 yards (25 for 168 for the game).
“He saved us,” Marinelli said of the senior who began the season as Ryan O’Connell’s backup before O’Connell got hurt. “(His performance) was a game-saver.”
Braden helped offset the slightly disappointing game by Pyne, the Rams’ terrific freshman quarterback. Pyne was 11 for 26 for 129 yards but 1 for 10 for 11 yards in the second half.
Pyne and the Rams might have been suffering from Post-Heartbreaking-Loss-To-Darien Syndrome. Arch-rival Darien beat the Rams, 37-34, on Thanksgiving Day after the Rams rallied from 24 points down in what was billed as the mythical FCIAC championship game.
Now here they were playing in an elimination game five days later.
“It was (a hangover) from the Turkey Bowl,” Marinelli said. “Not to take anything away from Masuk, but we were not at our best. I sensed at practice the last few days that they hadn’t gotten over it.”
The Rams did score on their first possession Tuesday, a 15-play, 51-yard drive that O’Connell finished with a 1-yard run. But Masuk came right back with a 15-play, 80-yard drive of its own. A 9-yard pass from Matt Hersch (15 of 26, 158 yards) to Jack Roberge tied it.
Pyne then raced in from 15 yards before Roberge tied it again with a 22-yard run.
Roberge was terrific, gaining 140 yards on the ground on 22 carries and adding five receptions for 41 yards. Most of the rushing yards came out of the Wildcat set, something that surprised Marinelli’s staff.
“We thought it was going to be a downpour tonight so we put the Wildcat in to catch them off-guard,” Lato said.
The Rams figured out a way to stop Roberge – nine of his last 11 carries went for zero or lost yards — but Masuk still made it interesting.
The Panthers cut it to 28-21 on Roberge’s 9-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter. New Canaan then seemed to put it away on a 19-yard field goal by Grant Morse with 3:08 remaining, but Masuk scored with 2:02 left on a Hersch-to-Fox 12-yard pass play.
The Rams then recovered the on-side kick and ran out the clock.