TRUMBULL — Running the popular and high-scoring spread offense — no huddle, pass, pass, pass — may not be the best way to protect a big second-half lead. But Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan was not ready to blame today’s shocking 38-35 loss to St. Joseph on that philosophy.
“Special teams’ mishaps were the difference,” Callahan said after watching in horror as St. Joseph overcame a 35-10 fourth-quarter deficit to win. It was the fifth largest margin a team had come back from in state history.
St. Joseph did indeed use two recoveries on kickoffs – one on an onsides kick and the other thanks to a fumble on the ensuing attempt — to score twice early in the fourth quarter and pull within one score. Those plays certainly helped St. Joseph, in terms of momentum and the scoreboard.
“After the first onside kick I knew we would do it,” said St. Joseph quarterback David Summers, who was 31 for 46 for 326 yards and four touchdowns, and also ran for another score.
“They had their way with us for most of the game,” St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia added. “So I didn’t think (the comeback) could happen. But when we recovered that first onside kick we had the momentum and I knew then that anything was possible.”
Possible, yes. But momentum aside, those two plays turned into two touchdowns. The Cadets needed four. The Cadet rally may not have happened had Ridgefield continued its offensive efficiency in the final 12 minutes.
Ridgefield piled up 383 of its 443 total yards through three quarters to take a 35-10 lead behind the play of quarterback Greg Gatto and receiver Jackson Mitchell. Gatto finished 34 for 48 for 407 yards and five touchdowns, while Mitchell caught 17 balls for 246 yards and three scores.
But then all of sudden, the Tigers (3-2) stopped clicking on offense. They had three possessions in the final quarter: two three-and-outs and then one first down. The Tigers gained 54 yards on their final possession but that came after the Cadets had scored four consecutive touchdowns to take the lead.
“Yes, it might be hard to protect a lead (with the spread offense), but it’s difficult for both teams,” Della Vecchia said. “We’re running non-stop for 48 minutes. That’s hard.”
St. Joseph seemed to have no shot after coming up empty on a fourth-and-goal from the Ridgefield 8 on the first play of the fourth quarter and trailing by 25. Up to that point the Cadets (4-1) could not stop Gatto and the passing game.
Gatto threw touchdown passes of 36 yards to Evan Wein, 23 to Luke Gaydos and 9, 56 and 14 to Mitchell in building the seemingly insurmountable lead. But it is also important to note that the Tigers averaged 1.6 yards per carry rushing the ball in the game (36 yards on 22 attempts), something that would certainly not help them while trying to protect the lead in the fourth quarter.
“It was almost eerie how easy it was for us (in the first three quarters),” Callahan said. The Tigers had 20 of their 21 first downs in the first three quarters. “But I didn’t think it would stay that way. When we needed to make plays we couldn’t do it.”
Making plays was all Summers did in the fourth quarter, with help from receivers Phil Pasmeg (13 receptions, 181 yards, two touchdowns), Will Diamantis (8-85-1) and Jared Mallozzi (5-29-1), who was contained for most of the game by the Ridgefield defense.
“It’s been a bit of a rough season so far for (Pasmeg), but I put a lot of trust in him today because Ridgefield was doing a good job stopping Mallozzi,” Summers said of the Tigers’ 2016 All-FCIAC first teamer. “But then we figured it out.”
Summers, who tossed a seven-yard touchdown to Pasmeg in the opening half, first hit Diamantis from five yards out to cut the margin to 35-17 with 8:08 remaining after the Tigers went 1-2-3-punt. Della Vecchia then called for the onsides kick and Mallozzi recovered on the Tiger 39. Six plays later it was Summers to Mallozzi from 12 yards out.
The Cadets then tried a pooch kick, which the Tigers failed to control and Connor Murphy recovered for St. Joseph at the Ridgefield 25 with 6:20 left. Four plays later Summers took it in from one yard out and it was 35-30.
Another three-and-out for Ridgefield left St. Joseph at its own 31 with four minutes left. On a third-and-3 from the Ridgefield 47, following an earlier critical pass interference penalty on the Tigers, Summers hit Jaden Shirden for 27 yards and then connected with Pasmeg for the final 20 yards. It was 38-35 after Summers and Mallozzi connected on the two-point conversion.
Gatto and Mitchell then hooked up on a 38-yard pass play on a fourth-and-3 from the Tigers’ 19. But the Tigers were stopped on successive plays needing one yard for a first down from the Cadets’ 34.
“We couldn’t do anything on those last three possessions, but that’s what momentum can do,” Callahan said.
“It’s kind of ironic because Ridgefield has been known as the team that always makes the comeback,” Della Vecchia added. “But that’s high school football. You never know what’s going to happen.”