By Dave Ruden
TRUMBULL — The worst moment of New Canaan High School’s football season to date may in retrospect prove to be its turning point.
It also helped the Rams win their first FCIAC title since 2008 and seventh overall, 31-20, over St. Joseph on Friday night
In just under 90 seconds right before halftime, poor execution of an ill-advised call brought the Rams their first real taste of adversity.
They were leading St. Joseph, 14-7, and on their way to another touchdown right before halftime when the Rams decided to get too cute, the residue of beating teams by an average of 34.5 points.
With a first down on the Cadets’ 2, and running back Frank Cognetta enjoying what would end up to be a 176-yard performance, the Rams gave the ball to Connor Buck, one of the state’s best defensive players but more of a novelty on offense.
Buck fumbled the exchange and the Cadets recovered at their own 3 with 1:33 remaining. After three runs, and a hearty effort, they appeared content to go into the locker room down by a score.
But St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia, in the gutsiest call of the night, decided to go long ball, and Jordan Vazzano completed a 69-yard bomb to Shane Miller.
Vazzano hit Mark Hirschbeck for a 6-yard score on the next play, with 18 seconds left in the half.
Instead of going into halftime with a two-touchdown lead, the 10-0, No. 1-in-the-state Rams were locked in a tie.
The exchange might have also said something about the teams’ respective temperatures at the moment. New Canaan, a little too carefree. St. Joseph, hungry with something to prove.
“I think it was good for us to get smacked in the mouth,” Cognetta said. “One key for us was to not be complacent. It hasn’t exactly been easy for us, but maybe it helped us out.”
The Rams turned a Michael DiCosmo interception into the go-ahead score, and the defense returned to dominant form in the second half.
And a team, mostly due to its immense talent, that maybe forgot what it was like to be put in an “or-else” situation, delivered. It was a valuable lesson, with Darien coming up on Thanksgiving, and a state championship and perfect season still to be grabbed.
“This is incredible,” Buck said after posing with the rest of the New Canaan seniors for a photograph in front of the goal post at the far end of McDougall Stadium. “It is something we worked hard for. We celebrate today, celebrate tomorrow and come Sunday it is onto the next one.”
Though New Canaan struggled and the Cadets had a disastrous second half offensively, the outcome was more in tune with where the teams stand than their first meeting three weeks ago, a 41-point blowout by the Rams.
Buck laughed a little bit when asked, with all due respect to his superb athleticism — he doubles as a track star — whether he may be just a little better going after the guys with the ball than carrying it himself.
“I was real down after that but the guys picked me up,” Buck said. “We were just a little bit out of our element for a half there. We figured out what we were doing wrong.”
Mufasha Abdul-Basir had another outstanding game for St. Joseph, rushing for 186 yards, including a 50-yard score that prevented a second-half shutout.
But the Cadets completed just 2 of 19 passes in the second half for 22 yards.
“I feel that is how we should have played all game,” Buck said. “It took a while to settle down.”
The Rams most likely will be confronted with another “or-else” situation before putting the equipment away next month. When they do, the final minute of the first half Friday night will prove to have been short-term loss for long-term gain.