The New Canaan Rams bounced back from last Thursday’s loss to Darien in the FCIAC Championship with a 21-6 win over previously unbeaten Windsor High School Tuesday night in the Class L quarterfinals.
Showing a mental and physical toughness at a rainy, cold Jack O’Brien Stadium, the No. 6 Rams (9-1) overcame the weather, key injuries and potentially big turnovers in a matchup of defending state champions. The No. 3 Warriors (10-1) came into the contest having won 22 consecutive games dating back to last season when they took the Class L-Small title. Meanwhile, head coach Lou Marinelli’s Rams were looking to rebound from their Turkey Bowl loss to the Blue Wave in defense of their Class L-Large crown.
Senior quarterback Michael Collins completed 16 of 28 passes and a touchdown for the Rams, despite the adverse conditions. Senior wide receiver Kyle Smith caught six passes for 58 yards, all in the first half.
Because of injuries to running backs Matt and Michael Cognetta, Smith and fellow wideout Ryan O’Connell were pressed into rushing duty in the second half, and the tandem responded beautifully, gaining a combined 125 yards on 15 carries. Smith picked up a touchdown on a one-yard plunge late in the third quarter, giving the Rams a decisive two-score lead that held up as the game’s final score.
Windsor took the game’s opening drive to the New Canaan 37-yard line behind the running of senior running back Bennie Fulse and the feet and arm of junior quarterback Jakhari Grant. The Rams defense would respond, however as senior defensive back Andrew DeFranco picked off a Grant pass at the New Canaan 7 to end the threat.
After trading punts, the Rams offense would strike first. Collins marched New Canaan down the field, capping off an eight-play, 70-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Peter Swindell for a 7-0 Rams lead with 4:56 left in the first quarter. For Collins, it was the 48th TD pass of the season, placing him just three away from tying the single-season state record.
New Canaan would add to its lead immediately. After the Rams defense held Windsor to a three-and-out, the Warriors muffed the snap on the ensuing punt. New Canaan recovered the ball at the Windsor 2, and one play later Mike Cognetta dove in for the score and a 14-0 Rams lead with 11:39 left in the half.
New Canaan would force another Warrior turnover later in the second quarter as junior linebacker James Freyre recovered a fumble at the Windsor 26. The Rams were unable to capitalize, however, as a 43-yard Peter Swindell field goal attempt fell just short.
On the next Windsor possession, the Warriors drove deep into Ram territory, as Grant hit senior receiver Isaiah Huff for a 41-yard gain. New Canaan’s defense would step up, forcing a turnover on downs at their own 12-yard line after the Warriors went for it on fourth-and-4.
That said, Windsor’s defense would make a play of its own on the Rams’ next drive. A 75-yard Collins-to-Matt Cognetta touchdown was called back by a block in the back penalty. Making matters worse was the fact that Cognetta injured his shoulder on the play following a late hit in the end zone. He would miss the remainder of the game. Three plays later, Collins was flushed out of the pocket and threw a pass over the middle that was intercepted by Huff and returned to the Rams 28.
After a personal foul set Windsor up at the New Canaan 13, Grant found senior receiver Tyler Cole in the end zone for a touchdown. In what would become a constant refrain in the second half, the Warriors shot themselves in the foot, as a personal foul penalty backed their PAT up 15 yards and ultimately led to a failed two-point conversion. New Canaan led 14-6 with 1:16 left in the half.
The Rams would get one more shot at extending their lead before the half, but Swindell hooked a 39-yard field goal attempt to the left, sending the teams into the intermission with the Rams up 14-6.
New Canaan would take the opening drive of the second half just past midfield, as Mike Cognetta ran effectively against a tough Warriors defense. On second-and-4 from the Windsor 49, however, Collins was picked off for a second time by Huff, who returned the interception all the way to the New Canaan 15.
In what would prove to be the turning point of the game, the Rams defense forced the Warriors into a fourth-and-2 at the New Canaan 6-yard line. A Grant pass intended for Coyle fell incomplete, giving New Canaan possession with 8:20 left in the third.
The Rams—using a three back formation of O’Connell, Smith and Mike Cognetta—moved the ball out the 38 before being forced to punt. A roughing the punter penalty allowed New Canaan to retain possession. Seven plays later, Smith would score the game’s last touchdown with a 1-yard plunge, giving New Canaan a 21-6 lead with 3:13 left in the third.
The New Canaan defense—which forced four Windsor turnovers on the night—kept the Warriors offense at bay for the balance of the fourth quarter behind solid play from linebacker David Strupp who had two sacks in the game and constant pressure from Sam Larson and Matt Hall. Meanwhile—after Mike Cognetta left the game with an ankle injury—key runs by Smith and O’Connell helped the New Canaan offense grind up valuable yardage and clock as the Rams cruised to the win.
New Canaan will host on No. 7 Notre Dame-West Haven (9-2) in the Class L semifinals Monday night at Dunning Field. The Green Knights defeated No. 2 Harding 34-0 in their quarterfinal matchup.
#6 New Canaan vs. #3 Windsor - Class L State Quarterfinals, Dec. 1, 2015 at Jack O'Brien Stadium, Windsor, CT
*NC – Michael Collins 18-yd. pass to Peter Swindell (Swindell kick)
*NC – Michael Cognetta 2-yd. run (Swindell kick)
*W – Jakhari Grant 13-yd. pass to Tyler Coyle (conversion failed)
*NC – Kyle Smith 1-yd. run (Swindell kick)
*Michael Collins (NC) - 16-28, 187 yds., TD, 2 INT
*Kyle Smith (NC) - 6-52 receiving; 5-68, TD rushing; INT
*Ryan O'Connell - 10-57 rushing; 2-24 receiving; INT
*David Strupp (NC) - 2 sacks
*Total offense - NC - 361, W - 241
*Turnovers: NC - 2, W - 4
*First Downs: NC - 20, W - 12
*Fourth Down Conversions: NC - 2-3, W - 1-5
*Penalties: NC - 6-65, W - 9-101