NEW CANAAN — The New Canaan football team was assessed a 15-yard penalty for taunting before today’s non-league game against Pascack Valley (NJ). Then Drew Pyne threw three touchdown passes to Quintin O’Connell, Grant Morse set a program record with four field goals and the run defense was unyielding during the 33-14 win.
With the season now 70 percent over, one was left to wonder about the current state of the Rams. After being assessed 15 penalties, is this a team that is going to continue to make the road toward a state playoff berth more difficult because of controllable mistakes?
And if so, is the talent good enough to overcome them?
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli was conflicted between expressing his concern and wanting to remain upbeat about the future.
“If we don’t start getting our stuff together…” Marinelli said, his voice trailing off. “I’m trying to be positive. We didn’t even start the game and we got a 15-yard penalty.”
Overrated or underachieving? That question has lingered like a hovering cloud since opening night, when the Rams, ranked No. 1 in the opening polls, lost to St. Joseph, 38-35.
There were 16 penalties in that game, the same number committed in a 36-21 loss to Greenwich. Today the Rams (5-2) had superior talent to overcome the constant raining of yellow flags.
And right now we have seen a trend: New Canaan has flourished when minimizing the mental and physical errors, and have suffered two defeats when struggling with them against two of the state’s top teams.
“We’re a work in progress,” Marinelli said. “It’s a little frustrating. We’re making the same mistakes we made the first game. Having said all of that, we were still able to pull out a win against a good team. They’re a little one dimensional but they are tough kids. So I think it was a good test for us and the kids passed the test.”
Marinelli has called his team a work in progress on several occasions this fall, but he thought that term would have been banished way before halloween. Yet it still dangles.
The Rams have alternated games where they have gained traction with those when focus lapses, making their road to the end zone longer or their opponent’s shorter.
Pascack Valley is a run-heavy team not constructed to play from far behind, so they were in a bind when Pyne found O’Connell on scoring plays of 1, 45 and 16 yards before halftime, which came when Morse made a 43-yard field goal on the final play for a 24-0 lead.
Pyne and O’Connell have developed a strong chemistry — Pyne threw for 248 yards and O’Connell had nine catches for 152 yards.
Most impressive was the Rams’ run defense, which allowed just 155 yards, with 59 coming on the first of Mike Gulino’s two fourth-quarter touchdown runs.
New Canaan was flat in the second half, which was not unexpected and normally would be easy to dismiss. But because of the lack of cushion they have given themselves, today was the start of a three-game stretch, with Norwalk and Fairfield Ludlowe to follow, where priority one has to be fine-tuning the execution.
Because the Rams still appear to have the talent to defeat Darien, the No. 1 team in the state, on Thanksgiving, and then make a run at a fifth straight state title. But those tough wins will be difficult to achieve if the penalties end up being a season-long problem.
The players, like their coach, have remained buoyed by the potential.
“After this I think we really came together during this game,” said Morse, one of the defensive leaders. “It was a team, we really haven’t seen anything like them before. I think we came out and our defense played extremely well in the first half and our offense played pretty well too. If we can keep that momentum and keep working that hard during practice, I think we can really carry this into the next game.”
Morse’s kicking was a highlight that will give Marinelli continued confidence in close games.
“It was good. We practice every day so it’s just routine,” Morse said. “I would rather be scoring. When it’s fourth down that’s what we’ve got to do. Everyone blocked for me, it was good snaps and good holds so it went as it should.”
Will the Rams’ season end up going as hoped, with wins over Darien and a Class L title?
Said Marinelli, “We have some things to clean up but I think we will be OK.”