STAMFORD — With a state playoff berth dangling, and testy trying to shed a label by skeptics of being overrated after a pair of earlier losses, the New Canaan football team channeled all of that energy in the fourth quarter of today’s Turkey Bowl against Darien.
Trailing, 14-7, the Rams scored 10 unanswered points behind a tremendous defensive effort and withstood a late drive and missed game-tying field goal in the final seconds for a 17-14 win at Boyle Stadium.
“The fourth quarter was huge for us,” said Jack Stewart, who excelled on both the offensive and defensive lines. “We dug deep and everything inside of us just came out. We were all cramping up, me especially. We fought hard at the end and came up with the victory.”
The No. 1 team in the preseason polls, New Canaan (8-2) earned the eighth and final seed in the Class LL playoffs, extending a streak to 14 straight appearances. The Rams, seeded eighth, will travel to top-seeded Shelton for Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
They also got the quality win absent from their resume.
“Guts. We had guts,” New Canaan receiver Quintin O’Connell said. “We’re a gutsy team.”
The Rams followed the exact route as a year ago, defeating their biggest rival to rebound from losses against St. Joseph and Greenwich to extend their season. The biggest difference this time is both defeats came by 28 points.
“Everyone was talking about St. Joe’s and Greenwich, and Darien beat St. Joe’s, and how we couldn’t come out and beat them,” Stewart said. “We just forgot about those games and started from scratch ever since we lost to Greenwich. We’re just a new team today.”
Darien (9-1), which came in as the No. 1 team in the state, created a more difficult path as it sets out after a fourth straight state title. The Blue Wave are locked into the sixth seed in Class LL. They will travel to Newtown for a quarterfinal if Norwalk defeats Brien McMahon tomorrow or to Greenwich if the Senators win.
“How do your turn the ball over so many times and come close against a team with five Division I football players?” Blue Wave coach Rob Trifone said.
Nick Radman’s 28-yard field goal with 9:47 remaining brought the Rams within 14-10.
New Canaan’s defensive line was effective all day, pressuring Blue Wave quarterback Cooper Hancock and batting down balls. The Rams’ fourth turnover set up the winning score as Kieran Buck sacked Hancock and recovered a fumble on the play.
That led to New Canaan quarterback Drew Pyne’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Wyatt Wilson with 6:58 left.
Darien got the ball back for the last time on its own 20 with 2:10 left and Hancock, with the help of a long completion to TJ Cornacchia, led a drive into field goal range. But Will Kirby’s 32-yard attempt with 24 seconds left sailed to the right.
“I’m very pleased for this senior class especially because it seems when they met any kind of adversity, like with St. Joe’s and with Greenwich, they crumbled,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “Now here is another big game they are playing and they were able to come through.”
The winning score came after the Rams failed to capitalize on field position from their previous three takeaways. Charlie Cunney had two interceptions on Darien’s first four plays.
Christian Sweeney’s 5-yard run gave New Canaan a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Darien tied the game on a 32-yard punt return by Tyler Herget, who when he last played on this field put his team out in front during the Class LL final win over Greenwich with a diving catch in the snow. This time, with New Canaan kicking out of its end zone, he spun out of a tackle and headed down the right sideline.
Darien went ahead with 4:51 left in the third quarter. Hancock hit a swing pass to Kirby, who lost a fumble that was recovered by Cornacchia in the end zone.
A chilly morning with occasional wind gusts gave the defenses a decided edge. New Canaan held a 243-183 advantage in total yards, well below both teams’ averages.
“Our defense played lights-out and our offense was not good today,” Trifone said.
The Rams’ unsung hero was J.R. Moore, who carried 14 times for 126 yards.
“All I was thinking in the fourth quarter, this might be the last time I strap up and put pads on for New Canaan football,” Stewart said. “That hit me hard and I played my hardest. Our whole season was on the line and I don’t think any of us could have played any better.”