MONROE — Football is a game of anticipation. If you are prepared for what the other team is planning, your chance for success greatly increases. If not, you’re in trouble.
So, when New Canaan football coach Lou Marinelli said after today’s Class L state semifinal against Masuk, “We didn’t see that coming,” you could safely assume his team’s run of four consecutive state championships had ended.
Masuk used a great first half from quarterback Matt Hersch and running back Jack Roberge, and a brilliant strategy devised by coach Joe Lato to defeat the Rams, 28-14.
“We were out of sync offensively because (Masuk) had a real good plan,” Marinelli said. “They were ready for us; we weren’t ready for them. You have to take your hats off to them.”
Masuk made New Canaan sophomore Drew Pyne, one of the top quarterbacks in the state, look merely above average. Pyne completed 19 of 34 passes for 242 yards but much of that came after the Rams had fallen behind, 28-0, and he also uncharacteristically threw three interceptions.
So, how did the Panthers, who will face Hand in Saturday’s Class L final, do it?
You’ve heard of a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive alignment? How about a 2-9?
“We figured we could pressure Pyne but he usually does very well under pressure,” Lato said. “So we decided to try to take away his windows and get our best athletes on the field.”
Pyne did have plenty of time in the pocket on many of his throws, although he was sacked three times. But he could not find open receivers who were constantly blanketed by the nine defensive backs.
“They dropped nine and rushed two so it was four against nine; that made it a little hard to throw the ball,” Pyne said. “We watched film of them but they did different things today.”
The No. 8 seed Rams (9-3), who knocked off top seed Middletown, 24-9, in last Tuesday’s quarterfinals, did adjust and tried to run the ball early in the game. But top back Owen Shin was held to 38 yards on 12 carries, so the Rams had to go “four against nine” with the passing game.
Meanwhile, the No. 5 seed Panthers (11-1) were terrific on offense as well. Led by Hersch, they drove 60 and 61 yards on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a pair of Hersch-to-Nick Lorusso scoring passes.
Hersch, playing with an injured foot, finished 22 of 27 for 240 yards (20 for 25 for 224 in the first half).
“Those two drives were incredibly important,” Lato said. “Matty Hersch is a legend. The kids were so excited to be playing New Canaan. You could tell they were really feeling it. They played out of their minds today.”
Masuk’s defensive game plan, coupled with the early 14-point deficit, spelled trouble for the Rams, who were looking for their 11th state title in 16 years.
“Rushing two guys? Dropping nine? I hadn’t seen that before,” Marinelli said. “It was a great plan. I thought we were on our way (to another state championship) after beating Darien and Middletown. It’s really too bad for the kids.”
Marinelli- and Pyne-led teams are not intimidated by 14-point deficits, however. And nobody inside Benedict Field thought this game was over, even after Masuk went ahead 21-0 late in the second quarter after another 64-yard drive. That one ended on a 1-yard dive by Roberge, who had 72 of his 83 total yards in the first half.
But New Canaan couldn’t put a dent into the lead. The Rams got into Masuk territory three times on their first four second-half possessions, but the Masuk defense wouldn’t break. And when Mike Zuk picked off Pyne and went 47 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-0 with one minute remaining in the third quarter, it was clear that the great New Canaan title run was over.
Pyne managed to connect twice with Quintin O’Connell in the final five minutes to complete the scoring.
O’Connell finished with nine receptions for 104 yards for the Rams.
Zuk caught eight balls for 80 yards for Masuk.
NOTES: Masuk, which defeated No. 4 Fitch 43-7 in the quarterfinals, was the Class L champ in 2008 and 2010 and will be playing in its 10th state title game. … Hand beat Windsor 31-6 in today’s other Class L semifinal. … Aside from New Canaan’s 10 championships since 2001, the Rams were also Class L runners-up in 2010 and 2011. … Masuk has now outscored its 12 opponents by a 515-97 margin this season. New Canaan scored 425 points and allowed 173.