Led by its defense, No. 3 New Canaan upsets No. 1 Darien

NEW CANAAN — The New Canaan football team’s defense has been operating in relative anonymity this season. The spotlight is about to get very bright

No. 3 New Canaan delivered a masterpiece on Thanksgiving, shutting down the FCIAC’s top-ranked offense and defeating No. 1 Darien 12-7 in the annual Turkey Bowl at Dunning Field.

The Rams held the Blue Wave, which had been averaging 44 points per game, to just one touchdown and 3.4 yards per play on the way to their fourth consecutive Turkey Bowl victory.

“When you’re the defensive team, you don’t get the attention,” said New Canaan senior Chad Russo, who had three sacks and earned the Jack Dempsey Memorial MVP Award. “Everybody wants to look at the big No. 1 offense out there, but we can definitely do our thing.”

“All year long they’ve been doing it (on defense),” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said, crediting defensive coordinator Chris Silvestri and his coaches for the game plan. “They were ready to play last Wednesday. They had it down so well, I can’t say enough praise about them. When you have a good kicker and a great defense, we’ll always be in the game.”

The game was the 94th meeting of the rivals since 1928 and the Rams boosted their overall advantage to 54-38-2, including a 17-9-1 edge in the Turkey Bowl series, which started in 1994. With the win, New Canaan will hold onto the Coaches Memorial Trophy, named in honor of legendary coaches John Maher of Darien and Joe Sikorski of New Canaan.

New Canaan (9-1) jumped ahead of the Blue Wave into the No. 2 spot in the Class LL standings, and is expected to host No. 7 Southington (8-2) in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m., Tuesday.

Darien (9-1) suffered its first loss and dropped from the top spot to No. 3. The Wave are expected host No. 6 Hamden (8-2) in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m., Tuesday. CIAC playoff matchups will be made official on Friday.

While Darien’s defense played well, limiting the Rams to 173 yards, the offense was unable to get into a flow.

“I thought our defense showed up, I thought our offense made mistakes and New Canaan’s defense played their butts off,” Darien coach Mike Forget said. “We didn’t do things that weren’t working, we just made mistakes in bad situations.”

New Canaan never trailed and limited the Blue Wave to negative yardage in the first quarter and just 23 yards in the first half.

The Rams’ defensive line of Russo, Ryan Werneburg, Ned Brady, Dillon Blair and Stephen Luccarelli came up big at key moments, and New Canaan forced three turnovers and scored on a safety.

“Defense has been the identity of our team all year,” Russo said “You can only do what you can control, so we just figured do what we’re good at and we’ll see how it works.”

The Rams were able to keep the Wave’s big three on offense in check. Quarterback Miles Drake passed for 157 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off by New Canaan’s Dylan Murray, one of three turnovers for the Wave.

Wide receiver Matt Minicus was held to two catches for 12 yards, and running back Tighe Cummiskey rushed 14 times for 36 yards.

Senior Jeremiah Stafford was Darien’s most productive player with 96 yards from scrimmage — 50 rushing and 46 receiving on five catches.

For New Canaan, senior Vin Cognetta had 14 rushes for 87 yards and a touchdown, and was part of the big defensive effort. The youngest of four brothers, all of whom played football for the Rams, he became the first Cognetta to finish on the winning side in the Turkey Bowl.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Cognetta said. “I knew we could do it. Our defense was just so strong that we stopped them all day, and our offense put up some points. We did what we had to do and we won.”

With the defenses in command, it was, of course, a field goal that started the scoring when the Rams’ Ty Groff booted one from 39 yards out with 9:16 to play in the second quarter.

Darien had the ball to start the second half, but New Canaan again made the defensive stop, forcing a turnover on downs at the Rams’ 38-yard line.

One play later, Cognetta broke free for a 62-yard touchdown run and a 10-0 lead.

The Wave responded with its best drive, covering 76 yards on three plays in 1:05, with quarterback Miles Drake connecting with Jaylen Lesperance for a 41- yard TD to close to within 10-7.

Late in the third quarter, a punt by Groff pinned Darien at its own 4-yard line, and two plays later, Cognetta caught Drake in the back of the end zone for a safety, giving the Rams a 12-7 lead heading to the fourth.

In the final minute of the game, Darien converted a fourth-and-five play when Drake threw a 12-yard pass to Jake Wilson to put the ball at the Rams’ 36 with 16.3 seconds remaining. But two incomplete passes ended the game.

“Just the way the day was going, you knew they were going to get another play,” Marinelli said. “Make no bones about it, they are a great football team, but we hung on and they just ran out of time.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Chad Russo, New Canaan, Sr., LB: Russo led the Rams with three sacks in a tremendous performance by the defense as a whole. He was named the winner of the Jack Dempsey Memorial MVP award for New Canaan. Cole Murphy was the MVP for Darien.

QUOTABLE

“Ever since we were in the third grade playing, everybody’s always come to the Turkey Bowl. I’ve seen a lot of wins and a lot of losses, but to put up a defensive performance like that was really nice.” — New Canaan linebacker Chad Russo

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports

NEW CANAAN 12, DARIEN 7

DARIEN 0 0 7 0 — 7

NEW CANAAN 0 3 9 0 — 12

NC — Ty Groff 39-yard field goal, 9:16

NC — Vin Cognetta 61-yard run (Groff kick), 9:17

D — Jaylen Lesperance 41-yard pass from Miles Drake (Isaac McMullin kick), 8:12

NC — Safety, Drake sacked by Cognetta in end zone, 0:16

Records: Darien 9-1, New Canaan 9-1