MERIDEN — Maloney had an unappetizing Thanksgiving on the gridiron with a 36-20 loss to rival Platt. But the No. 7 Spartans had sweet redemption in their unprecedented playoff meeting.
Maloney downed No. 6 Platt 16-6 in a Class L semifinal in front of a packed house at a wet Falcon Field on Sunday afternoon.
The victory sends the Spartans (10-2) to their first state football championship game since 2006. Maloney will play No. 1 seed and defending champ Daniel Hand (12-0) on Saturday at a site and time to be announced.
“Any time you can bring a team to the state finals it’s special, and it speaks on how hard these kids work,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said.
Maloney used a pair of touchdown passes of 3 and 39 yards from Elliot Good to Victor Marquez (8 catches, 106 yards) to jump ahead 16-0 at the half. Platt sophomore Roberto Salas scored a last-minute touchdown for the Panthers (9-3), but the Spartans defense was in charge all game.
Maloney turned Platt over on downs four times in the red zone, including twice in the opening quarter inside the 10. Maloney also got interceptions from Maurice Brackett and Sergio Muniz.
The one from Muniz set up the second TD connection from Good to Marquez, which came in the final minute of the first half.
But it was the goal-line stands that were so uplifting for Maloney and so deflating for Platt. The Panthers had first-and-goal plays from the Maloney 8 on their first two possessions, but were stalled both times. After the second, the Spartans drove 99 yards to take a lead they would never relinquish.
“Defense wins championships and our defense was unbelievable today,” Frederick said. “Those goal-line stops were the key of the game. If they score a couple times early on, it might be a different ball game. We pushed them around up front, and when that happens the end result is going to come out like it did today.”
Platt’s defense held Maloney 3-and-out on each of its first two possessions. After the second, Good had to punt from his own end zone.
Jake Baker returned the punt from the Maloney 31 to the 8. Platt quarterback Lorenzo Sanson rushed to the 2 on first down, but the Panthers were stuffed on their next three plays.
Then came the drive of the game — perhaps the season — for Maloney.
Taking over from their own 1, the Spartans marched 99 yards on 18 plays over a span of 7:05. Marquez capped the drive with a 3-yard TD reception on a fade to the right corner of the end zone.
James Tarver (25 carries, 48 yards) rushed in the two-point conversion up the middle to put the Spartans up 8-0 with 8:35 left in the first half.
The drive included three third-down conversions, the first coming at the Maloney 1-yard line as Good connected with Brackett for a 10-yard reception. That was Maloney’s initial first down of the game and got the Spartans going.
Later on the drive, Good looked for Brackett on a third-and-5 and they got eight yards. On the first play of the second quarter, a third-and-8 from the Maloney 37, Marquez caught a ball for 12 yards.
Later in the second quarter, 3:21 before halftime, Muniz chalked up the first turnover of the game with his interception, his sixth of the season.
Maloney cashed in with a 7-play, 60-yard drive. Good was 4-for-5 on the drive. He capped the possession with a 39-yard pass to Marquez on a screen play with 34.7 seconds left in the half.
On the play, Good rolled right and threw back across his body to Marquez as the receiver moved right to left over the middle. From there, Marquez found running room down the left sideline.
“They did the play up and I knew it was coming to me,” Marquez said. “I thought I had to get the job done to help my family.”
Jaylon Nixon was wide open on the two-point conversion from Good to put Maloney up 16-0 at the break.
“Victor is the hardest working guy on this team, so I know that I could depend on him,” Good said. “We all wanted the chance to get Platt and get and we did it.”
Good entered Sunday’s game as Maloney’s all-time passing leader for touchdowns and yards. The senior threw 14-for-26 for 179 and two touchdowns on Sunday and has a program-record 2,416 yards and 30 TDs.
On the final play of the half, Sanson threw to pass to Tre Carter at the 3 as the final seconds ticked off. It was in marked contrast to Platt’s 12-6 quarterfinal win on Tuesday over Naugatuck. That night, Sanson and Carter connected for a touchdown on the final play of the first half.
Sunday’s second half started much like the first, with a heavy dose of Salas and a long Platt drive. Again, though, the Panthers were stymied in the red zone. Facing a fourth-and-5 at the Maloney 14. Sanson rushed on a keeper only to come up one yard short.
Platt frustration continued on its next drive. Sanson connected with Carter for 11 yards and then scampered 20 yards on a keeper to get Platt down to the Maloney 20. Again, the Spartan defense stiffened. Identical to the previous drive. Sanson was stopped one yard short on a fourth-and-5 from the 15.
The Platt defense did its part and forced Maloney to punt in the wake of the second red-zone stop of the second half. But when the Panther got the ball back, Brackett came up with his interception.
“I just saw it come my way and I grabbed it and kept it running,” Brackett said.
The Panthers finally reached paydirt on their final drive of the game. It took 15 plays and Salas put Platt on the board with 49.4 seconds left.
Down 16-6, to have any chance of catching Maloney, the Panthers had to convert the critical two-point conversion. A penalty on the Panthers after the Salas touchdown did not help. They had to convert from the 18 and a Sanson pass to Baker fell incomplete.
Platt attempted the onside kick. Maloney lineman Ryan Martel jumped on it to seal the game.
Platt was led offensively by Salas (23-91 rushing) and Sanson (11-78 rushing; 4-for-16, 69 passing). Platt’s defense was stout in defeat, surrendering just 44 yards on the ground.
“We didn’t play our best game, that’s for sure,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said. “When you get to the playoffs, you have to get luck and we have no luck today. When we needed to punch the ball in early on, we didn’t do it.
“That was the biggest difference. We had opportunities to score early on and we didn’t do it. They did a great job and I wish them luck in the finals.”