A bouncing football made all the difference in the Rams' win over Darien in the Turkey Bowl. In the fourth quarter, a bad snap from center forced Darien punter John Gardner to take an inadvertent knee, giving the ball to the Rams deep in Blue Wave territory. That helped set up New Canaan's second and final touchdown on their way to a 14-7 victory and a trip to the state playoffs. Darien's season ended as a result of the loss in a game filled with big plays, turnovers, changes in momentum and constant drama.
It didn't take very long for Darien to establish their game plan. With their offensive line playing foot-to-foot and denying any penetration, the Wave ran a series of counters mixed in with their big weapon—the sweep. They received the opening kickoff and maintained possession for over eight minutes, with Bobby Nolan and Graham Maybell, behind strong blocking, moving the ball from their own 24-yard line to the Rams' 25. That's usually money-in-the-bank territory for punter and place kicker John Gardner, but he missed the 38-yard field goal attempt.
New Canaan's offense finally got on the field with four minutes left in the first quarter. It didn't take long for the Rams to strike. A Turner Baty-Joe Costigan completion went for 74 yards and an apparent touchdown but the play was called back because the Rams had an illegal player downfield. Michael Wohlberg intercepted Baty's next pass and returned it to the Rams 15-yard line. Darien faked a field goal attempt but an incomplete pass ended their drive and the first period ended scoreless.
In the second quarter New Canaan's Peter Park fumbled as he was fighting for extra yardage after a nice run and Darien recovered. That led to a Darien touchdown with Graham Maybell, who was voted Blue Wave game MVP, leading a crisp running attack. Maybell took it to the 17 on three consecutive running plays which started way back at the Rams' 42-yard line.Two plays later, quarterback George Benitez completed his first pass (he was 2 for 3 in the first half) to Alex Wildish to the seven. Then Maybell on an inside hand-off went wide and into the end-zone. Gardner's extra point attempt was good and Darien had a 7-0 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the period. The half ended with Darien recovering a Baty fumble—New Canan's third turnover—it was 7-0 Wave at halftime.
In the third quarter after a halftime "lecture" from Assistant Coach Joe Ditolla, the Rams came out with a bit more spring in their step and on their first possession tied the game.
Starting at their own 23-yard line, the Rams, with a mix of passes and runs moved the ball to the Wave 35. On a third-and-two from the 32, Baty hooked up with Kevin Macari, but New Canaan was called for illegal motion—a 5-yard loss which made it fourth-and-seven from the 37. New Canaan needed a big play and got it on a Baty-Willie Ouellette completion over the middle for a touchdown. Colin Shapiro's extra point evened the game at 7-all.
Darien's next series was about to end in a punt, but the Blue Wave got a first down near midfield when the Rams were called for having too many men on the field. The Rams would survive the penalty. Though the Blue Wave drove to the 12, Gardner, arguably the best place kicker in the state, missed his second 38-yard field goal attempt wide left.
Wave coach Rob Trifone said after the game, that their regular holder, Max Schreyer was unable to play because of a hand injury. The back-up snapper was snapping high throughout the game and the loss of timing on the hold was hurting Gardner.
Later in the quarter New Canaan came close to a touchdown when a Baty bomb was inches out of the reach of a wide open Macari. The third quarter ended 7 all.
In the fourth quarter Gardner was back to punt when the center snap went from bad to worse. This one was low and resulted in a bouncer that sent Gardner down to control the ball. He made a nice play, he got up in time to punt it downfield, but a flag was thrown. Gardner inadvertently "took a knee" in order to gather in the ball and play was ruled dead at that point. New Canaan had the ball at Darien's 22.
On sucessive carries, Peter Park bulled his way to the four, then battled his way to the one before Tim Robustelli, untouched, ran it in for the go-ahead touchdown. Shapiro made it 14-7 Rams with seven minutes remaining.
Darien drove to the New Canaan 25 with Benitez hooking up with Anthony Donato on three passes, and after a Rams pass interference call, the Blue Wave had the ball on the 12. But with 2:34 left to play, the Wave fumbled and this time the turnover went in the Rams' favor.
The Wave kept them pinned near the goal line and New Canaan had to punt. Darien took over again with two minutes remaining but New Canaan held. The Wave committed two penalties on their final drive. Rams defenders took care of the rest. Chris White batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage (his second in the game) and Robustelli made a last-second save on a Benitez pass at the 20-yard line.
With the win, New Canaan got the No. 1 seed and will face No. 4 seed St. Paul Catholic of Bristol in the CIAC championship semifinals, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Dunning Stadium.
The Turkey Bowl marked Rams Head Coach Lou Marinelli's 250th career victory. But Marinelli told his team after the game he wasn't sure how they'd pulled it off.
"We really didn't play well today," said Willie Ouellette, who was named game MVP as wide receiver after starting the season as quarterback. "If we're to do anything in the states, we'll have to play much better than we did today."
"It's a funny game," said Benitez who's been Darien's leader all season. "Our special teams were terrific all year and today we had trouble after our offense and defense played really well. Sometimes it's tough to figure out why things happen."
Wave Coach Rob Trifone said afterwards, "I couldn't be more proud of this team. On top of their accomplishments, I've got a terrific bunch of guys. When we lost two of our first three I wasn't sure we'd be playing for a spot in the states, but here we were today competing. It's been a great season."