SOUTHINGTON — The turkey tasted considerably different for the Southington and Norwich Free Academy football teams after they slipped their uniforms off before Thanksgiving dinner.
Southington fulfilled its role as heavy favorite with a resounding 38-6 win over Cheshire. As the Blue Knights’ celebration progressed, cyber-word filtered through the team that its quarterfinal Class LL playoff game would be at Fontana Field.
Meanwhile, NFA was unable to maintain its spot among the top four seeds due to their 9-7 loss to New London and would have to play on the road.
With kickoff slated for tonight at 6:30 p.m., both squads had a long way to go and a short time to get there.
The fourth-seeded Knights (9-1) had four days to prepare for an explosive running game bolstered by Boston College-bound Marcus Outlow. The fifth-seeded Wildcats (8-2) were equally challenged to gird for the aerial display with which quarterback Steve Barmore and wide receiver Alex Jamele have entertained the CCC.
The result should be an inter-conference clash of divergent offensive strategies.
Southington coach Mike Drury earned his first taste of postseason play last year when the Knights dropped a 23-14 decision to Glastonbury.
“Anytime you can get to the postseason, you compete,” Drury said. “This is a very competitive class in ‘LL.’ It’s what you worked for all year, so it’s time to have a lot of fun. It’s one game at a time, winner go home. No regrouping. You have to practice great and you have to execute.”
Last year’s game was still resonating with the seniors when Southington avenged the Glastonbury playoff loss in the first game of the 2013 season, a 16-9 victory.
“Part of the process is getting prepared and the process of getting experience was important,” Drury said. “It had been five years since we got to the playoffs until last year. It should make the kids hungrier to raise the bar. We want to do better and that’s been our goal. We’ve worked hard to try and achieve that goal.”
Glastonbury defeated NFA 6-0 two weeks later by standing firm in the red zone.
“We got there four times and didn’t get any points,” noted NFA coach Jamal Davis.
NFA lost to Xavier in the Class LL final last year after beating Newtown and upsetting Staples. Davis has the ultimate respect for Drury and the Knights.
“Experience has won some big games,” said Davis, a Wildcats assistant when the Blue Knights beat them in the 1998 Class LL final for Southington’s lone state title since the CIAC implemented tournament play in 1976. “They have a great coaching staff and great players, specifically [Barmore and Jamele].
“Defensively, I’m impressed with the way they run to the ball. You can tell that’s something they emphasize. On offense, they don’t put themselves in difficult situations. That goes back to senior leadership. They execute their game plan really well.”
The 5-11, 205-pound Outlow, playing in his third postseason, is the focal point of a multi-dimensional NFA offense. Outlow has 1,436 yards on 173 carries, 22 for touchdowns.
“He’s an explosive player, very dynamic whether he’s running or catching the ball,” Davis said. “He’s done that exceptionally well. For us, he’s the guy who been through this experience. The leadership piece is really key, and he’s trying to get the other guys in the right mindset to prepare for an outstanding Southington team.”
Outlow’s running mate, Khaleed Exum-Strong, gained 765 yards on 89 carries, 13 for scores. Quarterback Alex Beaudreault, a 6-3, 200-pound senior, ran for 389 yards and four TDs.
Beaudreault also completed half of his 80 passes for 815 yards and seven TDs. His favorite target is Ramel Williams (16 receptions, 343 yards, 3 TDs).
“We run a spread concept similar to Auburn and Florida when Urban Meyer was there,” Davis said. “If anything, we’re more of an option team, but we haven’t run it a lot.”
Barmore has thrown for 2,382 yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 148 of his 226 attempts. Jamele has 59 catches for 1,263 yards and 23 TDs, a school record. He surpassed Ed Reinhard for most receiving yardage in a season with his final reception of the Cheshire game.
Should NFA try to take Jamele away like Cheshire did, Barmore has 6-3, 225-pound sophomore Jay Rose (39-502-5), Ryan Borawski (22-253-2), Joe Daigle (15-219-1) downfield and Tyler Hyde (7-74-1) coming out of the backfield.
Hyde has rushed 122 times for 743 yards and 12 TDs. Barmore has proven capable when under pressure in amassing 357 yards on 72 carries, three for TDs. Zach Maxwell averaged 13.2 yards per carry on his 29 totes.
Containing Outlow and Exum-Strong falls into the hands of the linebacking crew — Apple Classic defensive MVP Maxwell, leading tackler Zach Jamele, Steve Hamel and Matt Thomson. NFA enjoys a size advantage in the trenches, thanks in large part to 6-foot-3, 230-pound right guard/defensive end Tuzar Skipper, formerly of Meriden.
“He’s a Division I prospect,” Davis said. “You’ve got to account for him.”
Strong safety Airec Ricks and inside linebacker Calvin Green are the Wildcats’ other key playmakers.
The Knights make up for it with speed, long hours in the weight room, the gang-tackling Davis noticed and technique.
“Up front we’re not huge, but we have good quickness and we’re very strong,” he said. “Strength is a big plus and our linebackers have good size. We gain an advantage in the receiver spots with our big receivers. We have to play lower and play with great technique.”
Drury discounts the notion that NFA’s competition in the Eastern Connecticut Conference is a notch below what the Knights encountered in the CCC. Beyond the two defeats to Glastonbury and New London, the Wildcats won the rest of their games by no fewer than three touchdowns.
“It doesn’t matter who you play,” Drury said. “If you play a tough schedule, you gain some advantage, but it doesn’t matter to me. A good team is a good team and we’ve got to play our best. This NFA team is a very good team.”
Hall coach Frank Robinson III, preparing his team to host West Haven tonight, has the distinction of being the only coach to defeat Southington this season in a 49-37 shootout in Week 5. Hall scrimmaged the Wildcats in the preseason and Robinson scouted them against New London.
“They are a dangerous running team offensively, but may be a bit banged up,” he said. “Defensively, they are tough. Their D-line and linebackers are quite good. I think Southington is playing better and better. They may have the upper hand in this game, but it is high school football.”