By Dave Ruden
NEW CANAAN — Believe the hype.
Since preseason workouts started last month, the talk surrounding the New Canaan High School football team has centered on the defense, unfamiliar conversation in a town where spread offense are two of the most-oft used words.
But the Rams turned in a dominant performance Wednesday night in the season-opening game against Daniel Hand, jumping out to a 50-7 lead and holding the two-time defending state champions to 29 yards in the first half until the subs entered in what turned out to be a stunning 50-21 rout.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought this would happen,” said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli. “We were hoping we could eke it out. That is a hell of a football program.”
Hand came in on a 26-game winning streak, its last loss to the Rams in the 2010 state semifinals.
On Wednesday, the lone bright spot for Hand came midway through the first quarter, when the Rams’ Frank Cognetta was stopped a yard shy of the end zone on fourth down, ending a 12-play drive.
On the ensuing play, Cole Harris, New Canaan’s All-State linebacker, tackled Hand’s Conor Dowd in the end zone for a safety. Harris would add to his point total in the following quarter, returning an interception 30 yards for a touchdown after the first of quarterback Nick Cascione’s two touchdown passes to Alex LaPolice.
The New Canaan defense, swarming to the ball, essentially turning Dunning Field into the football version of rush-hour traffic on I-95.
Harris said the safety set the tone.
“It was a big game-changer,” Harris said. “It took the wind out of their sails. The confidence they got from stopping us. It was just one of those plays I reacted to instantly, not really thinking, just reading.
Harris, Michael Root, Zach Allen, and Connor Buck lead a front seven that has been highly praised all summer.
“We’re living up to it,” Harris said. “Hopefully there are 14 more games to go and hopefully we can show we are one of the best defensive units in the state.”
Numbers told the story in what was built up as one of the showcases of this year’s FCIAC-SCC Challenge, yet had all the drama sapped out by midway through the first quarter.
The Rams enjoyed a 481-162 edge in total yards. They rushed the ball for 308 yards, led by 102 from Frank Cognetta, while Cascione was solid, completing 18 of 29 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
The offensive statistics are customary. It was the work by an often overshadowed defensive unit that stood out.
“I think our defensive staff did a great job breaking it down and making it simple for the kids to understand,” Marinelli said. “When they don’t have to think it is easy.”
Harris agreed while talent abounds, it was the attention to the details that made the biggest difference.
“There was a lot of film preparation,” he said. “Knowing our game plan inside and out like the back of our hands pretty much. Trying what our coaches are telling us, seeing it and believing it.”
Marinelli said Harris’ talent and personality are the perfect combination to be one of the leaders of a unit that very well could carry the Rams back to the state finals for the seventh time in eight years and their first title since 2009.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Marinelli said. “He’s a hell of a football player and he’s just gotten bigger and better.”
It is easy to try to extract added significance off of a single game. The Rams have their most difficult schedule in years, with Greenwich, Staples and St. Joseph still lurking.
But it is going to be exceedingly difficult to score on the Rams this fall, and that’s just an added burden when the offense could be equally formidable.
“We are pretty pumped up,” Harris said. “It’s a whole lot of fun playing with these guys.”