New Canaan captains James Freyre (#2), Teddy Hood (#58), Tommy Root (#1) and Ryan O'Connell (#7) walk to midfield prior to New Canaan's 31-28 win over Masuk in the Class L quarterfinals, Nov. 29, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
Scenes from New Canaan's 31-28 win over Masuk in the Class L quarterfinals, Nov. 29, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
On a team laden with so many offensive and defensive weapons, it isn’t often that the kicker garners much of the spotlight. That being said there was perhaps no bigger factor in No. 2 New Canaan’s 31-28 win over No. 7 Masuk in Tuesday’s Class L quarterfinal than Rams kicker Grant Morse.
Morse didn’t just bail out the Rams—in what New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli called a “flat” performance—with his punting, averaging 47.5 yards on two kicks that helped tip the field position balance in the Rams’ favor. He also converted all four of his extra points, recovered a Masuk onside kick at the end of a game and kicked what proved to be the difference-making field goal to help seal a hard-fought win for New Canaan.
“I try to put everything out of my mind,” Morse told NewCanaanite.com. “I pitch in baseball and it’s very similar to that. I ignore everything and go through the motions.”
New Canaan seemed to be doing nothing more than going through the motions as a team in a lackluster first half, which ended with the heavily favored Rams going into the locker room tied with the Panthers at 14.
“You could feel it on the sideline,” Marinelli said. “At halftime I said, ‘Hey, can we wake up? Or it’s going to be over.’ Luckily we came back and were able to do some things, but have some things to straighten out, for sure.”
“We came in not expecting as good of a team as they were,” senior co-captain Ryan O’Connell said. “Masuk played their hearts out and I have the upmost respect for them. On our side of the ball we really have to pick it up.”
The Rams received another huge performance from senior running back Graham Braden, who again stepped into the feature back role with a still-banged-up O’Connell limited to short-yardage offense, defense and kick return duty. Braden carried the ball 25 times, gaining 168 yards for a New Canaan offense held to an uncharacteristically low 129 passing yards, largely due to wet and foggy conditions at Dunning Field.
“Graham has been unbelievable,” O’Connell said. “He’s stepped into the role and hasn’t been affected by the pressure at all. He’s been waiting for his shot and I’m really excited for him.”
Things started off well enough for the Rams, forcing Masuk to a three-and-out on the game’s opening series. New Canaan then put together a 14-play, 49-yard scoring drive, converting two fourth downs on the way and capped off by a one-yard dive by O’Connell with 5:59 to play in the first quarter.
Masuk answered right back with a long drive of its own, highlighted by a fake punt conversion on fourth-and-12. Quarterback Matt Hersch hit Jack Roberge for a 9-yard touchdown, tying the game at 7 just before the first quarter ended.
New Canaan was able to counter with an 11-play, 82-yard scoring drive as quarterback Drew Pyne scrambled into the end zone, putting the Rams up 14-7 with 9:15 left in the half.
Masuk—as they did all night—answered again, moving 65 yards in six plays to tie the game at 14 as Roberge broke several tackles on a 22-yard touchdown run with 7:03 remaining in the second quarter.
After a three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, Morse pinned the Panthers back with a beautiful 50-yard punt that rolled out at the Masuk 13-yard line. The Rams defense responded as well, forcing a three-and-out of its own. After the ensuing Masuk punt was shanked, New Canaan was in business, setting up shop at the Panthers’ 49-yard line.
New Canaan appeared to be on the verge of scoring the go-ahead touchdown, moving to the Masuk 8-yard line, but a fumble into the end zone was recovered by the Panthers, ending the Rams scoring chance.
New Canaan’s defense forced another Masuk punt attempt, and when the snap was dropped the Rams had new life, taking over at the Panthers’ 13. Three plays later, goal-line QB Spencer Williams took it in on a keeper from one yard out, giving New Canaan a 21-14 lead with 5:32 left in the third.
Another muffed punt attempt on the ensuing Masuk possession set the Rams up with another short field, giving New Canaan a first-and-10 at the Panthers’ 24. After Ryan O’Connell—limited yet again to mostly defense and special teams—picked up five yards on fourth-and-3, Pyne rushed for his second touchdown of the night, this time for nine yards to put New Canaan up 28-14 with 1:34 left in the third.
The Panthers kept it close as Roberge scored his third touchdown of the game on the next Masuk series. His 9-yard run brought the Panthers to within a touchdown, trailing 28-21 with 11:43 to play.
After trading punts, the Rams were able to go up by two possessions again, as Morse drilled a 19-yard field goal with 3:08 left in the game. New Canaan led 31-21.
The Panthers then drove 80-yards in just over a minute, scoring on a Hersch to Peter Fox hookup from 12 yards out to pull Masuk to within a field goal, 31-28 with 2:02 remaining in regulation.
The Panthers then tried to pooch the kickoff up the middle to retain possession, but the ball found the awaiting arms of none other than New Canaan’s Grant Morse, who held onto it to preserve the nerve-racking victory.
“Masuk did things against us that I didn’t think was possible,” Marinelli said. “I don’t know if it’s the rust from the Turkey Bowl, but I think it’s also because we were playing a really good team that came in very well-coached and knew what they were doing. We’ll take it, but it’s certainly not our best performance and we’re going to have to get some things straightened out here if we intend to continue.”
New Canaan will next take on No. 6 Notre Dame-West Haven in the Class L semifinal on Monday, Dec. 5 at 6:30 P.M. at Dunning Field as they continue their quest for a fourth straight state championship. The Green Knights were 44-7 winners over No. 3 New London in their quarterfinal game.
*NC - Ryan O'Connell 1-yd. run (Grant Morse kick)
*M - Jack Roberge 9-yd. pass from Matt Hersch (Nolan McCarter kick)
*NC - Drew Pyne 15-yd. run (Morse kick)
*M - Roberge 22-yd. run (McCarter kick)
*NC - Spencer Williams 1-yd. run (Morse kick)
*NC - Pyne 9-yd. run (Morse kick)
*M - Roberge 9-yd. run (McCarter kick)
*NC - Morse 19-yd. FG
*M - Peter Fox 12-yd. pass from Hersch (McCarter kick)