MERIDEN — Platt beat Maloney.
That’s the one thing football fans expected to read about the 56th annual Stoddard Bowl.
Pretty much everything else that transpired Thanksgiving morning on a chilly, wind-swept Falcon Field deviated from the anticipated script.
The undefeated Panthers never trailed Thursday, but the one-win Spartans played them much closer and much more tenaciously than expected in a 28-8 final before a heavily bundled crowd of 2,500.
The win gave Platt its sixth straight Stoddard Bowl victory, 11th in the last 13 years and capped a perfect regular season at 11-0.
But with junior running back Tyzhan Leatherwood again hobbling on a bum ankle, senior guard Toledo Sharp suffering a severe thumb injury and senior quarterback Andrew McBride stinging from a sub-par performance (despite winning the game’s MVP Award), the Panthers were left with a sense of needing to regroup before Tuesday night’s Class L quarterfinal with North Haven back at Falcon Field.
“Today, it didn’t look like they were ready,” said Platt head coach Jason Bruenn. “We can’t play like this in a playoff game. We’ll get beat bad.
“I don’t know. Maybe they read some articles that said that they were supposed to walk in here and Maloney was going to give them the game. Maloney gave them a game, but I don’t think it was the game they thought they were going to get.”
Platt was bailed out by senior linebacker Jason Nelson, the Defensive Player of the Game, and junior Cyrick Watford, who took home the Underclassman Award.
Nelson led a defense that kept Maloney off the board until Spartans senior Jophy Nieves willed himself into the end zone on an 11-yard run in the game’s final minute.
Nelson forced and recovered a fumble earlier in the fourth quarter with Maloney trying to get back into a 21-0 game on a fourth-and-short at the Platt 30. He also caught two passes at crucial times on offense, both of which led to touchdowns.
Watford, Platt’s free safety, was pressed into service at running back when Leatherwood re-aggravated an ankle injury that cost him time earlier this season.
With Platt leading just 14-0 at halftime, Watford stepped into the backfield to start the second half and stabilized the offense. He carried 15 times for an even 100 yards and powered home from 3 yards out for his first varsity touchdown.
“I didn’t know I was going to get this,” Watford said, holding the Underclassman Award. “I’m blessed.”
Cyrick’s older brother, Creme, had the first half of the Watford daily double by hauling in a 47-yard scoring fade from McBride in the closing seconds of the first quarter.
That connection came just 1:43 after Platt completed a 16-play, 69-yard drive capped by senior Hasani McKenzie’s 1-yard scoot. It was one of the few times all morning that Platt’s potent offense truly looked like its 43.6-points-a-game self.
“I had a bad game,” McBride said flatly. “I didn’t play as well as I thought I would play today.”
McBride ran for a 1-yard TD in the third quarter and, for the game, completed 10 of 18 passes for 182 yards, not bad for such a blustery day. But McBride struggled in the cold to hold onto the new Spalding footballs deployed for the game. He lost three fumbles.
Nieves, senior linebacker Caleb Jean and junior lineman Elijah Manke had the recoveries for Maloney. Problem was, the Spartans couldn’t cash in on any of them. Had they, a heavy underdog that played an admirable game could have perhaps entertained true upset thoughts.
Maloney’s best bid came midway through the second quarter. After Jean’s fumble recovery gave them the ball at midfield, the Spartans rode the legs of its sophomore backfield, running back Jaron Caron (36 carries, 134 yards) and quarterback Chris Dingwell, into the red zone.
Dingwell (7-12, 51 yards) connected with senior receiver Tom Gonyea over the middle for an 11-yard gain on a fourth-and-7 at the 15. That gave Maloney the ball goal-to-go at the 6.
There, Platt stiffened. Nelson & Co. defended a pass into the end zone, twice denied Cogdell between the tackles and, on fourth down at the 4, stopped Jean two yards shy on a shovel pass.
Going the other way, Platt tore down field in the closing minutes of the half. McKenzie had a 49-yard breakaway that would have gone for a TD if not for a tackle by Nieves.
It stood as the day’s longest single gain, yet was ultimately squandered. The Panthers gained the red zone only to be stopped on downs as the half trickled away.
The moods in the respective locker rooms, undoubtedly, did not reflect the numbers on the scoreboard.
“Fourteen-zip, we had two scoring opportunities that we left out there,” said Maloney coach Pierce Brennan. “There’s a lot of good coming out of this game.”
The Panthers turned to Cyrick Watford for their spark. They’d done so before, using the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior at running back when Leatherwood was out earlier in the season.
Said Watford: “They told me I had to run the ball and I was, ‘OK, I’m up for the challenge.’”
Watford delivered an 11-yard gain on the first play of the second half. McBride fumbled on the next, but Maloney went 3-and-out and Watford was right back at it, pounding out another 11 yards on his second carry.
That gain launched a 10-play, 81-yard drive McBride finished by going over senior center Michael Barnett from 1 yard out to extend the margin to 21-0 with 6:49 to go in the third quarter. The key play came one snap before: a 27-yard catch-and-run by Nelson on a fourth-and-3 play at the Maloney 28.
The defenses took over after that. Manke recovered McBride’s third fumble at midfield early in the fourth quarter and the Spartans got a little something going. Dingwell zipped a slant into the red zone to junior receiver Alex Lespier, who made a nice catch in traffic only to have the ball jarred loose on the resulting hit.
The ball bounced into the arms of Platt senior linebacker Scott Dargan at the 15, and that was that.
The Panthers added their final TD with 3:13 to go courtesy of Cyrick Watford. Nieves saved the Spartans from the shutout with 16 seconds left, a fitting end for a long-shot that played so well.
“They played hard. I’ll give it to Maloney. Maloney definitely had a good game,” said Nelson. “Their coaches are great coaches. I’ve been around the coach for a couple days at the luncheons and he’s a great guy. They should be a different team in a couple of years. They’re developing. I give credit to their young guys that played a lot and the seniors that are willing to let that program grow. They gave us a good one. They fought hard.”
“I’m just proud our senior class was able to change everything and turn it all around,” said Nieves. “In the future, who knows when we will come back. At some point, we will and I’m going to be here to watch it.”
The Spartans finished 1-9 overall in Brennan’s first season. With so many underclassmen in the starting lineup, their future certainly looks bright. Platt’s future is now. North Haven is coming to town in five days for a Class L quarterfinal.
“I don’t think today was our best effort of the season,” Bruenn remarked. “Maloney did a nice job. They made a decision defensively to keep everything in front of them and that’s what they did, except for the one long pass. There weren’t a lot of breakaway runs and they made us earn everything we got.
“Pierce does a great job. He hasn’t benefited (in wins), but he’s benefited from a team that’s well-disciplined, that played within its scheme. We made enough plays to win the game; they made enough plays to stay in the game.”
Platt 28, Maloney 8
At Falcon Field
P—Hasani McKenzie 1 run (Joe Mwamba kick) 2:00
P—Creme Watford 47 pass from Andrew McBride (Mwamba kick) 0:17
P—Andrew McBride 1 run (Mwamba kick) 6:49
P—Cyrick Watford 3 run (Mwamba kick) 3:13
M—Jophy Nieves 11 run (Nieves run) 0:16
RUSHING—Maloney (47-179): Jaron Cogdell 36-134, Jophy Nieves 2-25, Chris Dingwell 8-14, Mike Gulino 1-6; Home Team (48-251): Cyrick Watford 15-100, Hasani McKenzie 9-75, Tyzhan Leatherwood 11-60, Andrew McBride 13-16.
PASSING—Maloney/Chris Dingwell 7-12, 51 yards, 0 INT; Platt/Andrew McBride 10-18, 182 yards, 0 INT.
RECEIVING—Maloney (7-51): Alex Lespier 3-20, Kyle Hartenstein 1-17, Tom Gonyea 1-11, Caleb Jean 1-2, Jaron Cogdell 1-1; Platt (10-182): Olajuwon McLeod 4-58, Creme Watford 3-60, Jason Nelson 2-36, Dewayne DeMace 1-28.