NFA stuffs New London 13-0 to qualify for Class LL playoffs

New London — Norwich Free Academy senior offensive tackle Liam Wilmoth stood in the middle of his team's delirious postgame huddle on an early Thanksgiving afternoon and repeatedly — and effusively — praised the defense.

“Defense, we thank you,” Wilmoth said.

The Wildcats' defense should be rewarded with a week’s worth of pizzas after what they did to New London. They turned it over on downs within 14 yards of their end zone on four drives in the first half alone.

All NFA needed was a 1-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Shea McManaway in the third quarter. Senior Miles Joyner’s 95-yard interception return was the dagger as the Wildcats knocked off the previosuly unbeaten Whalers, 13-0, at Cannamela Field.

NFA earned the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I title and, more importantly, qualified for the CIAC Class LL tournament for the fifth time in seven seasons.

“Our motto is, ‘perfect, repeat,’” Joyner said about the defense. “We don’t worry about what our offense is doing. They get stopped three times in a row, we just focus on stopping (our opponent’s) offense. Try to keep it as a goose egg.”

It was the seventh win in a row for NFA (8-2, 4-0). It will be the fifth seed in the LL playoffs and play at No. 4 Southington (10-0) in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

New London (9-1, 3-1), ranked 10th in The Day's Top 10 state coaches’ poll, is seeded third in Class L. It will host No. 6 Notre Dame of West Haven (7-3) on Tuesday.

It was the 155th game in the nation’s oldest high school football rivalry. NFA has a 78-65-11 edge.

New London’s defense played well enough to win as it allowed fewer yards (276) than the Wildcats.

The Whalers gained 298 yards of offense, but NFA kept stuffing them whenever they threatened. It stopped first half drives at its 2, 14, 6, 9 and 26 yard line.

New London had first-and-10 from the Wildcats’ 14 when Joyner’s interception return pushed his team ahead, 13-0, with one minute, 58 seconds left in the third quarter.

“Our guys knew what they were going to do and were able to execute on defense,” NFA head coach Jemal Davis said. “(We had a) bend, but don’t break, mentality.”

Sophomore defensive lineman Adelino Daviega recovered a fumble for the Wildcats and junior linebacker Douglas Moore delivered a jarring blindside sack to senior Melquann Gomez.

“They were bringing a guy from the outside and we were not picking it up,” New London coach Juan Roman said. “Either we were not seeing it, or not recognizing it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice or three or four times, shame on me a few times.

“When you win, you have great players. When you lose, it’s coaching. We didn’t get it done as coaches today.”

It was a costly game all-around for the Whalers, too. They would've earned the top seed with a win. Worse, Gomez came up limping after a first-half run and spent the second half on crutches. Roman said it may be a high ankle sprain.

The first half was a one that only Buddy Ryan’s family could love as neither team could score.

NFA finally got its offense on track in the third quarter. It had second-and-9 from its own 34-yard line when senior R.J. Darby, a 5-foot-7, 193-pound safe with wheels, ran outside to the left, got a great block from Caleb Parker, and raced for a 38-yard gain.

Darby finished with 13 carries for 82 yards.

“He’s Marshawn Lynch,” Joyner said. “He’ll run straight to you all the time. In practice, it’s hard to dodge him.”

Jawaun Johnson followed with a 24-yard run. He had 12 carries for 93 yards.

Two plays later, McManaway scored on a 1-yard keeper with 4:25 left in the quarter.

Ball game.

“It was kind of a relief,” Joyner said. “We knew our offense would start clicking eventually. It was just when it would happen.”

Sophomore Jacob Commander (12 carries, 101 yards) still managed to give the Whalers hope, though. He ran 56 yards down to the NFA 24 on the first play of their next drive.

New London got as far as the 14 before Joyner had his interception. He tore down the Whalers’ sideline for his first pick-six of the season.

“I was able to read the QB, how he eyed down the receiver,” Joyner said. “We were in zone coverage, so I took my chance and got the ball and ran.”

Davis said, “For our guys, the emotions were flying at that point.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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