Every player and coach in the FCIAC knows the fury Matt Milano can unleash with a football in his hands. When New Canaan’s record-setting senior quarterback steps on the field, points always end up on the scoreboard.
So no one was shocked to see Milano and New Canaan’s spread offense lighting things up again Thursday morning in the 83rd Turkey Bowl game against border rival Darien.
“The kid is outstanding,” said Darien head coach Rob Trifone, working the sideline just a week after the death of his father. “Their only loss came against Stamford, and with all due respect to Stamford, it was because (Milano) got hurt.”
The real surprise came on the other side of the ball as New Canaan’s defense put together its best performance of the season to spark the Rams to a 42-21 victory over the Blue Wave in front of 3,000 at Dunning Field.
New Canaan (9-1) held Darien to just 37 yards rushing, kept junior quarterback Henry Baldwin in check for most of the afternoon and picked off five Blue Wave passes, including one on a halfback option.
The Rams, who led 42-7 in the third quarter before Darien scored 14 points on New Canaan’s second-team defense, qualified for the Class L state playoffs with the victory and will face New London in the semifinals Tuesday night.
Darien, which also needed a win to clinch a berth to the states, finished at 8-2 overall.
“Our defense played its best game of the year,” New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli said. “They worked hard and broke down a lot of things Darien was trying to do. The kids were really confident today.”
It was another spectacular performance for Milano, who completed 18 of 36 passes for 260 yards, four touchdowns and one interception while rushing nine times for 77 yards and another score.
Milano, who was named game MVP for New Canaan, tossed touchdown passes of 10 and 25 yards to senior Patrick Newton and 68 and 10 yards to Peter Kraus. His touchdown run came on a 25-yard scamper out of the option in the third quarter.
This time, Milano had to share the headlines with New Canaan’s defense, which allowed just 99 yards in the first half and spent the morning ball-hawking with the front line allowing the Blue Wave no room to run.
“No one pays attention to our defense,” said senior linebacker Kevin McDonough, who had one interception while rushing eight times for 56 yards and one touchdown at fullback. “I don’t think anyone respected our secondary or gave us the credit we deserve as a defense, but I think we proved a point today.”
Baldwin finished with 257 yards and three touchdowns on 18-for-35 passing. But New Canaan also picked him off four times, two of which came on balls the Rams tipped into the air. Two of Baldwin’s touchdowns came after the Rams emptied their bench, and he was just 14-for-30 for 127 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions going into the fourth quarter when it was 42-7.
“This wasn’t one of New Canaan’s better defensive teams. It wasn’t one everyone was ranting and raving about,” Trifone said. “But I thought they played a phenomenal game.”
Darien had a few chances to get back into the game after falling behind 21-7 in the second quarter, but Corey Eppley dropped what would have been a sure interception and touchdown with 1:30 left before halftime.
The Blue Wave started its first two possessions of the third quarter in New Canaan territory after a 37-yard kickoff return by Peter Gesuladi and an interception by game MVP Patrick McDonald on Milano’s first pass of the second half. But New Canaan’s defense stiffened, forcing Darien to attempt two field goals by backup kicker C.J. Raia, pressed into action following an injury to Chris Smith on the opening kickoff.
Raia’s 47-yarder went wide left and a 42-yarder fell short after his timing was altered on a high snap.
“That was very disheartening,” Trifone said. “It would have been better to score a touchdown there, but if we kick in three points it’s 21-10 and we have a game. The bottom line is we had an opportunity to get back in the game and we just didn’t make the plays to do it.”
New Canaan’s receivers did some great work in the open field. Running back Connor Kilbane was great out of the backfield, catching six passes for 88 yards, including a couple of crucial early catches on third-and-long.
The Rams also showed great balance, grinding out 253 of its 491 yards of offense on the ground behind a committee of runners led by Milano, McDonough, Rob Distler (54 yards, five carries) and Louis Hagopian (26 yards, 4 carries).
“What we did today on offense is really going to help us,” Marinelli said. “That should come in handy if we get into a cold-weather situation in the playoffs.”
New Canaan took a 7-0 lead after scoring on the first possession of the game as Milano hit Newton with a back-shoulder pass in the front of the end zone.
Darien tied it 7-7 on a 8-yard pass from Baldwin to Harlan Smith with 9:58 left in the second. Smith caught six passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
But New Canaan responded three plays later as Kraus turned a short reception on a slant pattern into a 68-yard touchdown to put New Canaan ahead for good.
The Rams made it 21-7 on a 25-yard catch-and-run up the seam by Newton with 4:12 left in the second quarter. New Canaan went to the option in the third quarter with Milano and McDonough sharing carries. That produced a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped on a 1-yard run by McDonough.
Interceptions by Pat Burke on a ball tipped by Jared Meichner (two INTs) and McDonough on a tip by John Brainard led to two more New Canaan touchdowns over a span of 1:49 of the third to make it 42-7.
Darien made it seem closer than it really was as Gesualdi scored on a 56-yard pass and Smith on a 15-yard toss from Baldwin.
New Canaan will look to get back into its sixth straight state championship game. The Rams won four in a row before losing to Masuk last season.
“The seniors didn’t want the season to end,” Marinelli said. “This was a statement game for them. The fact that we’re back in the state playoffs is a testament to them.”