DARIEN — The play is called Rocket, and Darien coach Rob Trifone was hoping to fool the defense and run out the clock late in tonight’s Class LL quarterfinal game against Greenwich.
“There was a timeout and I was hoping they would think we would go off tackle,” Trifone said. “I told them just make sure you stay in bounds.”
That final warning was for Sam Wilson, who was getting a toss and racing outside toward the left sideline. Wilson gave his coach a bonus besides staying in play, outracing the pursuit for a 79-yard touchdown that secured a 26-16 win.
The play came 62 seconds after Wilson had appeared to close out the game with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“So far he hasn’t carried the water out. Other than that he has done it all,” Trifone said of Wilson, who is most acclaimed for his work on defense but who has had an impact recently carrying the ball late in games. “He’s such a complete player on both sides of the ball and he does everything relatively under the radar. Obviously he stood out at the end of the game here but he does a lot of stuff that you take for granted and he gets it done.”
The third-seeded Blue Wave (10-1), which rebounded from its only loss, 20-0 on Thanksgiving to New Canaan, will meet No. 2 Southington in Monday’s semifinals. The teams met in the second week of the season with Darien winning, 24-8.
Greenwich (9-2), which lost to Darien, 27-21, during the regular season, was ranked fourth in the state writers’ poll but sixth in Class LL because of strength of schedule. This could have easily been a championship game between the teams that have accounted for the last four titles.
Instead it was just a classic quarterfinal, a defensive battle in which both teams made mistakes and were unable to take advantage of created opportunities.
The teams combined to score as many points — 21 — through the first 45 minutes as they did in the final three.
Darien was holding onto a 12-9 lead it had since Ben Howarth’s field goal in the final seconds of the first half for the Cardinals.
Faced with a third and 10 situation from his own 13, Cardinals quarterback James Rinello’s pass was intercepted and returned by Wilson 20 yards for a seemingly safe 19-9 lead with 2:59 remaining.
It was the second touchdown by the Blue Wave defense; Will Bothwell returned an interception 30 yards in the second quarter to break a 6-6 tie.
The Cardinals, who had struggled in the red zone and had been limited to Kobe Comizio’s game-tying 17-yard scoring reception in the second quarter, needed just a couple of plays to get back in the game. A long catch and run by Comizio set up Rinello’s 20-yard pass to AJ Barber that made the score 19-16.
Greenwich had the chance with timeouts to get the ball back once more with the chance to tie or win the game. Wilson negated those hopes.
“The credit really goes to the O-line and the coaching staff,” Wilson said. “The coaching staff put me in the position to get that pick and the O-line gets the credit for the touchdown run.”
Greenwich’s offensive struggles were epitomized by their opening possession of the second half. The Cardinals methodically went on a 15-play drive that took 8:16. But they stalled at the Darien nine-yard line and Howarth missed a field goal.
“We came out well and we get zero points,” said Anthony Morello, the Cardinals’ first-year coach. “Two missed field goals. Darien is a different team when they’re playing from behind and unfortunately this season we were behind the entire time. We never had the chance to be ahead. We just didn’t execute in the critical moments and they are a team that capitalizes off of mistakes. We made more mistakes than they did tonight. That was the difference in the game. Two pick-sixes.”
Darien took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on Peter Graham’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Sean Gifford.
The Darien defense used a relentless pash rush fueled by the two ends, Bothwell and Evanchick.
Darien did not get a first down on its first two possessions of the second half. The third ended with an interception. But the defense made sure that the Blue Wave would have a chance to continue its pursuit of a fourth state title in five years.
“The celebration has to be short-lived because we’ve got another tough opponent,” Trifone said. “These young men have had a history of bouncing back. Look, we laid an egg on Thanksgiving and New Canaan played very well. I could tell from some comments from various people they wondered how our boys would respond. You saw how they responded.”