By Dave Ruden
NORWALK — It was a cruel kind of irony, not one lost on A.J. Albano.
For the past two weeks, the Brien McMahon football coach has been forced to defend his team, first for not defeating an opponent deemed worthy enough of owning a perfect record, then for a bad loss in its first big game of the year.
On Friday night, one of the Senators’ proudest moments of the season came in defeat.
After falling behind at halftime, 27-14, the Senators took their only lead with two long drives to start the second half, then played St. Joseph evenly before a late interception proved the difference in the Cadets’ 42-35 win.
The victory propelled the Cadets (9-1) both into their first FCIAC championship appearance — they will face New Canaan in a rematch on Friday night in Trumbull — and a guaranteed home game in the quarterfinal round of the Class M playoffs.
The Senators (7-2), meanwhile, saw their postseason hopes crumble. They would need a win over Norwalk on Thanksgiving and league rivals Ridgefield, Staples and Trumbull, currently ahead of them in Class LL, to all lose. And even that would not be a guarantee.
It is why Albano called Friday night’s game essentially a state playoff contest.
The dejection on the coach’s face a week ago following a 44-7 loss to Ridgefield was replaced by what could best be described as proud disappointment.
“The outside world didn’t know it because of last week but we have a top team,” Albano said.”We went toe to toe with a team that could win a state championship.”
The tone for the Senators’ rally on Friday was set on the opening play of the second half, a 68-yard run by Malik Whittaker. Six plays later Kenny Keen finished off a 96-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
After St. Joseph went three and out, the Senators drove 88 yards in 10 plays, with Kentrell Snider’s 5-yard run putting them ahead, 28-27.
What followed was the teams exchanging three touchdowns over the course of 16 plays.
The Senators rushed for 198 yards in the second half, 302 for the game.
Mufasa Abdul-Basir carried the ball for 268 yards and 4 touchdowns to lead the Cadets (9-1). He was given the ball on 11 of their final 12 plays before taking a knee to run out the clock.
When asked about his performance, Abdul-Basir first praised his opponent.
“Give them credit,” he said. “Brien McMahon is a hell of a team.”
It was a night the Senators finally got some respect. It was a consolation prize, just not the brass ring.