Erik Becker believes that every play the Hand of Madison offense runs is akin to a fighter throwing a punch.
"They might not all be knockout punches," the Tigers' offensive coordinator said, "but they take their toll."
Friday, Hand used a flurry of second-half blows to beat top-ranked Xavier of Middletown, 40-20, in the most anticipated game of the regular season.
The loss snapped the Falcons' 30-game winning streak.
The Tigers began the second half with an exhausting, gutsy and freaky 22-play touchdown drive. They continued to pile it on as they outscored Xavier, 20-0, before an overflow crowd at Middletown's Palmer Field.
"Xavier is still a great football team — we just played better in the second half," Hand coach Steve Filippone said. "We've got some gamers. We've got some kids that rise to the occasion."
The Tigers (5-0) are the new No. 1 in The Day's Top 10 state coaches' poll, moving up two spots.
Hand outscored Xavier in the second half, 20-0.
Hand, in addition to outscoring Xavier 20-0 in the second half, also had a 287-39 total yard advantage in that half.
"They kicked our ass up front on both sides of the ball," Xavier coach Sean Marinan said.
First-year quarterback Branden Bilcheck completed 20 of 32 passes for 227 yards with a touchdown and interception. His top targets were Kyle Anderson (nine catches, 139 yards) and Caleb Ewald (five catches, 57 yards, one touchdown).
Linemen Peter Gershon and Ian Diell, and linebackers Matt Walsh and Wes Staples led Hand's exceptional defensive effort.
"We had a really lousy first half and didn't really get what we needed out of it," Filippone said. "We had a tremendous second half and got everything."
Lousy is a bit harsh, but the Tigers didn't inspire much confidence in the first half, trailing 20-14.
Offensively, Hand only sustained one drive.
The comical size difference between the Tigers' offensive line and Xavier's defensive line didn't help, either.
The Falcons' three-man front averaged 265 pounds.
Center Richard Byrd (230 pounds) was the heaviest player on Hand's offensive line. Offensive tackles Cameron Gravina and Matthew Sagnelli weigh 190 and 210 pounds, respectively.
Hand couldn't match Xavier's size, so it had to use its speed and toughness.
Both traits finally paid off in the second half.
The Tigers opened the half with the ball at their own 10. The drive had an ugly start as they were flagged for a substitution infraction before their second play. Next, they burned a timeout.
Hand was penalized two more times on its next three plays. It incensed the Tigers, especially since the Falcons hadn't been penalized once in the game.
Hand finally got moving on its sixth play. A big part of it was that it began using the 230-pound Walsh that half as an extra blocker, giving Bilcheck more time. The Tigers also continued to manipulate the pocket, rolling Bilcheck back-and-forth.
"Turn around and take a look at Brenden," Filippone said. "He's about 5-9, and they've got 6-4, 6-5 lineman. You can't see down the field. When you get him out on the edge, his vision comes up and he's able to do what he has to do."
Rolling the pocket served another purpose — it forced the larger Falcons to chase Bilcheck.
"Part of this (Tony Franklin) spread system is making a defense have to defend the entire field from sideline to sideline," Becker said. "Making them turn and run. Making them defend more plays than they're used to."
The Tigers used Bilcheck's speed on a gutsy third-and-11 call from their own 21 — they had him run. He gained 12 yards.
"This is only his fifth game starting," Becker said, "and I think he emerged as the quarterback we thought he could be. … Under these situations, to play with the poise he showed, was unbelievable."
The 21st play of the drive brought the night's wackiest moment.
Hand had driven to the Xavier 18 and went for it on fourth-and-8. Bilcheck was under siege as soon as the ball and forced to throw.
Gravina, Hand's right tackle, caught the ball and ran. He advanced to the 3-yard line as two officials flagged him for being an illeligible receiver.
The officials huddled. … and waved off the penalty.
Bilcheck's pass had been tipped by one of the two Xavier defenders that crunched him, thus making it a live ball.
"What about Cam?," Filippone said. "Here's this little, squirmy lineman who ends up with the ball in his hands. … He almost got in. I'm surprised that he didn't"
Walsh ran for a 3-yard touchdown on the next play to tie the game, 20-20. It was the second of his five touchdown runs.
The extra point was blocked, but Hand had finally gotten into sync and ran nearly seven minutes on the clock.
Now it was the defense's turn. They seized control as they continued to stuff the run, namely DeAngelo Berry.
Berry averaged 191 yards and scored 15 times prior to Friday. He had 16 carries for 43 yards and a TD against Hand.
"It's all the same with every team — we just have to play assignment football," Gershon said. "We knew that DeAngelo Berry was a great runner. … We been facing that all year. We know how to stop the run. It's all about just getting to your gap, playing gap control, and making a wall on the line.
"It's clear that we were oversized, but we stayed low and we just did an amazing job controlling the line of scrimmage."
Boyle completed 10-of-12 passes for 138 yards with a touchdown and interception. He also scored on a 10-yard run.
Xavier's only first down of the second half came late in the game.
"From the end of last year, this (game) was our objective," Gershon said. "We knew we were going to play Xavier, and we just believed that we were going to win 100 percent. And when your heart is into something and your mind is into something, it just amazing how everything comes together, you can perform miracles like this."
■ ■ ■ ■
To the surprise of no one, the CIAC absolved Barlow of Redding coach Rob Tynan of violating its 50-point "score management" policy after his team beat winless Immaculate of Danbury on Saturday, 56-0.
A coach may be suspended for beating a team by more than 50 points, but the policy isn't intended to punish a coach who uses common sense and subsititues liberally, refrains from throwing deep posts, etc.
Tynan did what he could, but the situation didn't allow it. The Mustangs have fallen on hard times since the halcyon days of Steve Kaplanis, who died in 2005.
Tom Taylor, who coached Brookfield to the 1994 Class M state championship, is the program's fourth coach since Kaplanis' passing.
The Falcons led Immaculate 22-0 after one quarter, scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone as well as a safety.
"We started switching kids in the first quarter," Tynan told Rich Gregory of the Danbury News Times. "It's not a great position. Games like this, I don't take a lot of pleasure in. I don't. I feel bad."
Taylor came to Tynan's defense.
"I have no problem with Rob at all," Taylor told the News Times. "He could've had 100. He apologized to me after the game. He could've kneeled on the ball, but that would've been an insult to us. And he was right. We came here to play football. So I have no problem with that at all. And I don't think Rob will have any problem, and if he does, I will step up and defend him. He couldn't help it. He was running fullback dive the whole second half.
"Rob is a good man and he has labored over there for many years. I'm glad to see him having a good year."
The policy is unpopular with many folks, but the CIAC's football committee opted not to eliminate the rule at its meeting last February.
Read that last sentence, everyone — the CIAC football committee, not the CIAC, decided to keep the rule.
Several coaches are on said committee, and the committee was persuaded to keep it after New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli defended it, according to Dave Ruden of the Stamford Advocate.
Note that Marinelli has gone to great lengths in the past to keep from breaking the rule.
Not every coach is a fan of the rule, such as Staples of Westport's Marce Petroccio.
"I don't want to embarrass anyone," Petroccio told Ruden earlier this month. "What is worse, seeing a 49-0 score in the paper or being at a game and seeing people do things not natural to the sport?"
We're not fans of the rule and would much, much prefer running clock. Alas, the football committee keeps backing said rule, so be it. There's no sense tilting at windmills when there's more important things to rail about. Complaining and writing about it hasn't done any good, either, so if the rule still enrages you, then perhaps chaining yourself to the goal post or something will get your message across.
■ ■ ■ ■
New Britain suffered a bitter 24-21 loss to Newington Friday after a call went against it.
Malique Jones was punting from the New Britain 6-yard line late in the fourth quarter when the Indians' Chris Beauford deflected the kick, according to Kevin D. Roberts of The Herald of New Britain.
The Hurricanes contended that Newington recovered, then fumbled the ball, which was recovered by the former at its own 15-yard line.
New Britain should've been given a new set of down because the ball had changed possession.
Instead, the officials called for a measurement. The Golden Hurricanes didn't get the first down, and Newington took over at the 15.
Two plays later, New Britain was called for pass interference in the end zone. The ball was moved to the 8, and Jake Hedberg scored on a 2-yard run with 1:29 seconds left.
New Britain coach Tebucky Jones told Roberts Saturday that the unidentified head official told him that he flubbed the call.
"I'm glad they admitted they're wrong," Jones told Roberts. "That's all you can ask."
■ ■ ■ ■
Nothing could match Hand's showing Friday night, but there were noteworthy results elsewhere.
It's time to acknowledge that Fairfield Prep is back after it ravaged Cheshire, 39-6. The previous week, Prep thrashed Shelton, 42-3.
Someone with a lot of time on their hands needs to find out the last time anyone routed Cheshire and Shelton in back-to-back games. That's just not done.
Hillhouse of New Haven kept its playoff hopes alive by winning at North Haven, 27-14. North Haven had won the previous weekend at New London and was one of the two remaining threats on the Academics' schedule.
Hillhouse (4-1) still has to play host to Xavier next week, and even if it loses, it should still qualify for the Class M playoffs. Trust us — no one in the class wants the Academics to qualify. Ditto St. Joseph of Trumbull.
Weston continued its surprising season by scoring 20 successive points after halftime to beat Bunnell of Stratford in overtime, 27-20.
Trumbull provided the weekend's biggest WHAT result as it beat Darien, 39-26. It was just the Eagles' second win, whereas Darien (3-2) began the season as one of the FCIAC favorites.
Finally, North Branford desperately tried to blow out its scoreboard, beating Old Saybrook/Westbrook, 70-39.
Yep, the Thunderbirds scored 10 touchdowns.
Brandon Basil was an efficient 9 of 14 passing for 288 yards and six touchdowns for North Branford (4-0). He also scored on a 3-yard run.
Dale Hausman ran 14 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns for the purple and black. Chris Caron had three catches for 183 yards (!) and three touchdowns. Joe Delucia added three catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns, and ran three times for 37 yards and a score.
■ ■ ■ ■
The Newtown and Oxford coaching staffs shall not be friending one another anytime soon after Saturday's meeting.
Newtown had a 19-point lead and the ball at the Wolverines' 2-yard line with a minute left in the game.
Ordinarily, a team takes a knee in that situation.
Nope — Nighthawks coach Steve George had his team try to score again.
Newtown scored. …. on a 2-yard pass from Andrew Tarantino to Julian Dunn. It gave the Nighthawks a 47-21 win.
The two coaching staffs proceeded hooting and hollering across the field at one another.
Oxford coach Joe Stochmal wouldn't comment about the play when asked by Andrew Frosceno of the Danbury News Times.
"It speaks for itself," Stochmal said.
George's explanation was, um, intriguing.
"They were upset we stuck the ball in the end zone, I guess," George said. "Twenty-one point, 18-point game, whatever it would have been, just trying to win the game, you know?"
■ ■ ■ ■
In case you were wondering, Xavier's 30-game winning streak would tie it for the state's 11th-longest streak, according to the Connecticut High School Football Record Book.
St. Joseph of Trumbull won 30 straight from 1981-84.
Cheshire won a state-record 49 straight games from 1992-96.
■ ■ ■ ■
Two weeks ago, ctflowers1989 posted that Wolcott, Brookfield, Berlin and Barlow of Redding had played tougher schedules than New London.
(Note to Flowers — in the future, post your real name instead of a pseudonym. We're all pals here.)
The validity of Mr. (or Ms.) Flowers opinion got folks at Polecat HQ wondering, so we decided to look each team's strength of schedule as judged by Ned Freeman's "Freeman Ratings" for CalPreps.com and MaxPreps.com.
MaxPreps's description of Freeman's computer program:
"The system utilizes the huge number of game results stored in the MaxPreps database. Generally, the more a team wins the higher the ranking, but the system takes into account quality wins (against other highly ranked opponents) and strength of schedule.
"For example, a team's ranking is hurt more by losing to a team that is ranked below them verses a team ranked ahead."
The computer model has an uncanny way of mimicking both The Day coaches' and New Haven Register media polls. It also always rates teams higher from the stronger leagues, such as the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Southern Connecticut Conference. Those teams have had the most success in interdivision, playoff and CIAC state finals, thus teams from those league's have a better strength of schedule than those in other conferences.
All that written, here are Freeman's Ratings for the five schools Flowers mentioned:
New London: 1.9 (its opponents have a combined 9-15 record).
Brookfield: minus-1.1 (8-17).
Wolcott: minus-7.8 (8-17).
Barlow: minus-8.5 (6-19).
Berlin: minus-17.3 (9-16).
The computer doesn't agree with Flowers' opinion of each team's schedule, but it does rate Barlow ahead of New London in the overall ratings. Barlow is rated 19th, New London 22nd.
More minutia — here's the top 10 teams rated by strength of schedule with their record and SOS in parentheses:
1. Cheshire (3-2, 22.7); 2. Hand (20.6); 3. Xavier (20.1); 4. Wilbur Cross of New Haven (1-4, 17.5); 5. Amity of Woodbridge (2-3, 16.9); 6. Notre Dame of West Haven (1-4, 16.5); 7. Immaculate of Danbury (0-5, 16.1); 8. Hillhouse (15.5); 9. Shelton (3-2, 14.7); and, 10. Norwalk (1-4, 14.1).
Note that the overall ratings evolve with each passing week because more data is inputted into the computer system.
Oh, yeah. The team with the worst SOS — Prince Tech of Hartford (4-0, minus-48.2).
■ ■ ■ ■
The Day's Top 10 state coaches' poll with records and first-place votes in parentheses: 1. Hand; 2. Ansonia (2-0, 2); 3. Staples of Westport (4-0); 4. Windsor (4-0); 5. Xavier (4-1); 6. Masuk of Monroe (5-0); 7. West Haven (5-0); 8. Glastonbury (5-0); 9. Greenwich (4-0); and, 10. Berlin (5-0).
The New Haven Register's media poll: 1. Hand (20); 2. Staples (6); 3. Ansonia; 4. Xavier; 5. Windsor; 6. Greenwich; 7. Masuk; 8. West Haven; 9. Glastonbury; 10. Southington (5-0).
Ned Freeman's cold, emotionless computer ratings for CalPreps.com and MaxPreps.com: 1. Hand; 2. Ansonia; 3. Staples; 4. Xavier; 5. Fairfield Prep (4-1); 6. Greenwich; 7. Hillhouse (4-1); 8. Newtown (5-0); 9. Trinity Catholic of Stamford (5-0); and, 10. Masuk. West Haven was 12th, Windsor 13th, Glastonbury 14th and Berlin 30th. The latter's schedule has dragged down its rating.
Vaya con dios.
The Day Of New London's Top 10 state coaches' poll
First-place votes in parentheses, record through Saturday, points tabulated on a 30-28- 26-24-22-20-18-16-14-12-11-10-9- 8-7 basis, and last week's ranking:
1. Hand (11) 5-0 386 3
KNOW THIS: The Tigers are the new El Supremo. Now that they have that target on their back, they play host to No. 7 West Haven. Life in the Southern Connecticut Conference is fun. NEXT: vs. West Haven, Friday, 7 p.m.
2. Ansonia (2) 5-0 356 2
KNOW THIS: Arkeel Newsome was given Thursday's game off to rest a sore ankle. It didn't matter. Saiheed Sanders ran nine times for 109 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers blasted Seymour, 47-0. NEXT: at Watertown, Friday, 7 p.m.
3. Staples 4-0 326 4
KNOW THIS: The Wreckers scored on their first two offensive plays in Friday's 51-6 rout of Danbury. NEXT: vs. Trumbull, Friday, 7 p.m.
4. Windsor 4-0 286 5
KNOW THIS: The Warriors haven't been challenged much this season. They'll get one Friday when they play at unbeaten Middletown in one of the Central Connecticut Conference's two ginormous games this weekend. NEXT: at Middletown, Friday, 7 p.m.
5. Xavier 4-1 266 1
KNOW THIS: There hasn't been a good time to play the Falcons the last two plus years. Amity, however, is playing them at the worst possible time. NEXT: at Amity, Friday, 7 p.m.
6. Masuk 5-0 239 6
KNOW THIS: Thomas Milone ran seven times for 180 yards and five touchdowns in Friday's 54-19 romp over New Fairfield. He also scored on a 75-yard catch. Same old, same old. NEXT: at Brookfield, Friday, 7 p.m.
7. West Haven 5-0 232 7
KNOW THIS: The trio of backs Ervin Philips, Duane Gary and Eddy Williams will have to work extra hard to run against Hand. NEXT: at Hand, Friday, 7 p.m.
8. Glastonbury 5-0 216 9
KNOW THIS: The Tomahawks are featured in the CCC, and the state's, other biggest game this weekend. NEXT: vs. Southington at Falcon Field, Meriden, Saturday, 7 p.m.
9. Greenwich 4-0 206 8
KNOW THIS: Liam O'Neill returned from a broken finger suffered during the preseason and threw for 145 yards and two touchdowns in Friday's 40-14 win over Fairfield Ludlowe. NEXT: vs. Bridgeport Central, Saturday, 2 p.m.
10. Berlin 5-0 145 10
KNOW THIS: Justin Gombotz ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns, threw a 65-yard touchdown, and intercepted two passes in Saturday's 27-12 win over Northwest Catholic. NEXT: vs. Rockville, Friday, 7 p.m.
Also receiving votes: Southington (5-0), 112 points; Middletown (5-0), 100; Hillhouse-New Haven (4-1), 83; Newtown (5-0), 79; St. Joseph-Trumbull (4-1), 68; Trinity Catholic-Stamford (5-0), 44; Norwich Free Academy (5-0), 43; Tie, Fairfield Prep (4-1) and New Canaan (4-1), 32; North Branford (4-0), 19; Avon (5-0), 14; Derby (4-1), 9; Barlow-Redding (5-0), 8; Tie, Hartford Capital/Classical/Achievement (5-0) and Wolcott (5-0), 7.
The following coaches voted: Tom Brockett, Ansonia; Jim Buonocore, Ledyard; Craig Bruno, Bunnell-Stratford; Dave Cadelina, Bridgeport Central; Steve Filippone, Hand-Madison; Rob Fleeting, Windsor; Tanner Grove, Montville; Jude Kelly, St. Paul-Bristol; Tim King, Valley Regional-Deep River; Sean Marinan, Xavier-Middletown; John Murphy, Masuk-Monroe; Marce Petroccio, Staples-Westport; Bob Zito, Maloney-Meriden.