By Dave Ruden
Like two speeding trains on a collision course, Friday night’s much-anticipated game between St. Joseph and New Canaan is finally upon us.
It has been circled on the calendar since September, with the expectation that both teams would be undefeated and a berth in the FCIAC championship game would be all but secured for the winner.
And while we needed the Cadets to hit a last-second bomb to avoid a loss to Fairfield Prep to keep things tidy, the hopes of area football fans have been answered.
It is time, finally, to dispense with all the talk and let the game begin. Besides, there is not much more to be said that hasn’t already been covered dozens of times.
We all know that New Canaan is No. 2 in the state and St. Joseph No. 3. We all know that the Rams have perhaps the state’s best defense, the starters having allowed just one first-half touchdown all year, last week against Staples. We know that the Cadets have one of the best offensive lines, the catalyst to equally proficient running and passing games.
St. Joseph has quarterback Jordan Vazzano. New Canaan has linebackers Michael Root and Cole Harris. The Cadets have running back Mufasa Abdul-Basir. The Rams have defensive linemen Connor Buck and Zach Allen.
The Cadets have a stingy defense and the Rams an explosive offense, though each has been overshadowed.
We have heard from the coaches, New Canaan’s Lou Marinelli and St. Joseph’s Joe Della Vecchia (and if you missed it go to the end of this post and watch as we interviewed the two together Tuesday night).
We know how much the game means to the players. St. Joseph has never been to the FCIAC final; the Rams have not made an appearance since winning the championship in 2008.
We know the teams have played every year since 2005, with the Rams winning six of the eight games. There was the 2010 classic, a 28-27 St. Joseph victory when Lou Marinelli opted to go for what turned out to be a failed 2-point conversion at the end of the game.
What can we tell you anything that you don’t already know? Not much. But here is a hail of bullet points to break down the keys to deciding the biggest FCIAC regular season game with state-wide implications in some time.
WILL THE HOGS HOLD UP? By far the biggest factor. New Canaan has a swarming, overpowering defense, and people forget that its unheralded secondary is not that far behind the front seven.
St. Joseph’s offensive line has held up well all season, save for a few plays in the first half against Darien and Wilton when Vazzano was pressured. The Rams are a step up in class. Given that it is hard to see New Canaan’s offense getting shut down, the Cadets are going to need to give their quarterback time. The Rams, by the way, already have 30 sacks.
BALL CONTROL. St. Joseph’s best chance to win will be giving running back Mufasa Abdul-Basir the ball as much as possible, sustaining long drives, taking time off the clock and shortening the game. Accomplishing that is easier in theory than practicality, but Abdul-Basir needs just a little bit of space to move the chains. Will he find it?
CONTINUED VERSATILITY. For the first league team associated with the spread offense, New Canaan has been more balanced this year than at any time since changing its philosophy.
How balanced? The Rams have passed for 1,314 yards and run for 1,293. So what does St. Joseph try to take away? Staples opted to emphasize pass defense last week. The Rams threw for just 62 yards — and ran for 338.
FIELD POSITION. An element that should have more time under the microscope. New Canaan’s offense has been helped by often starting drives in opposing territory. Give the Rams a short field repeatedly and the game will be over quickly.
The Cadets don’t have to score every time they get the ball, but they cannot afford to consistently go three-and-out and lose the battle of field position.
And sophomore kicker Peter Swindell is 5 of 6 on field goal attempts and gets good distance on kickoffs.
SIX FINAL WORDS. Time to just play the game.