BRIDGEPORT — For the first 12 minutes, Big Red was gold on Tuesday night.
An interception in the end zone and a big pass play going the other way for a touchdown. A blocked punt followed by a field goal.
The only question after No. 8 Cheshire bolted to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter against top-seeded St. Joseph was whether the Rams could make it stand up for the next three in their Class L state quarterfinal at Kennedy Stadium.
The answer, after an initial “no,” was an emphatic “yes.”
After letting their early lead get away before halftime, the Rams rebounded in the third quarter with go-ahead touchdown receptions and passes by junior standout Matt Jeffery —yes, both — and then made the advantage stick with a defense of both the shutdown and opportunistic variety.
On a night that saw some eye-opening upsets in the CIAC football quarterfinals, this one stood out the most: Cheshire 24, St. Joseph 14.
The victory, the first in the postseason for Cheshire football since the 2009 Class LL state championship season, sends the Rams (7-4) into Sunday’s semifinals, when they’ll travel to No. 4 New Canaan (10-1) and look to knock off a second straight FCIAC favorite.
Against St. Joseph (9-2), the Rams got two long catch-and-go touchdowns by Jeffery, who then got behind center and threw the game-icing score in the fourth quarter to junior running back Jeffery Gonzalez.
The Rams also got not one, but two blocked punts by Ben Thompson and they got three interceptions from three different defenders.
It was one of those nights in the Cheshire universe in which both individual stars and entire constellations absolutely glittered.
The start could not have gone better for the underdog. Cheshire halted St. Joe’s opening drize when Jeffery made an over-the-shoulder interception in the end zone on an overthrown pass.
Turning around, Jeffery took a quick slant from sophomore QB Aniston March one minute later, broke a tackle at the point of the catch, and was gone untouched from there for a 79-yard touchdown that put Cheshire up 7-0.
The big plays kept coming. Cheshire’s defense sustained momemtum by forcing a punt. Thompson broke in, blocked the kick and recovered the loose ball at the St. Joe’s 2.
The Hogs bore down and limited the damage, holding the Rams to 3 on a 25-yard field goal by Micah Galloza.
In the second quarter, St. Joe’s erased that 10-0 deficit with a pair of scoring drives. QB Will Signewald completed the first with a 9-yard TD pass to Mickey Covino in the opening minute of the frame. Riley Jordan finished another with a 1-yard scoot off right tackle.
Down 14-10, the Rams had 3:51 left to work with the first half and did put together a scoring bid, but a Galloza field goal attempt with seven seconds on the clock was no good.
The Rams opened the third quarter with a promising drive, gaining the red zone on a nice run by Gonzalez. Again, however, opportunity lost: The Rams fumbled and Bryce Prince recovered for St. Joe’s.
But, hey, when you’ve got Matt Jeffery in the lineup, there’s always possibilities awaiting around the next corner. He and the defense stopped St. Joe’s on its first crack of the second half, Aniston came back on the field and threw a receiver screen that Jeffery promptly took untouched down the left sideline for a 62-yard TD.
Cheshire, with 8:34 left in the quarter, was back on top 17-14.
Equally critical, the Rams sustained momentum with defense and special teams. On the ensuing St. Joe’s possession, Gonzalez stepped in front of a pass for Cheshire’s second INT of the night.
Before the third quarter was out, Thompson blocked his second punt of the evening, a play that gave Cheshire the ball at the St. Joe’s 31 with 2½ minutes left in the period.
St. Joe’s stifled this scoring chance, but the field had tilted, and the fourth quarter opened with the Hogs facing a third down at their own 6-yard line.
Again, Cheshire’s defense rose to the occasion, picking off its third pass of the game, with junior linebacker Adam Vernon doing the honors this time.
At that juncture, there was 10:35 to play, Cheshire had a 17-14 lead and had the ball on St. Joe’s half of the field. Now was the time to drive the nail, and the Rams did just that.
Jeffery, after catching two TD passes, shifted to QB an threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Gonzalez. Jeffery took a Wildcat snap, swung a pass to Gonzalez on the left, and he gained the end zone with some key receiver blocks at the edge.
Just before the play, the Rams had succeeded in luring St. Joe’s offsides on fourth-and-short.
With 9:33 left, Cheshire was up by two scores, 24-14.
Could the top seed respond? Not after the kickoff. Cheshire’s D held, St. Joe’s punted, and the Rams regained possession with 6½ minutes to kill.
One last chance for St. Joe’s. One more stop for Cheshire. No punt this time. The Hogs had no choice but to go for it on fourth down and the Rams held.
Then it was just a matter of running out the clock at Kennedy Stadium, a place that’s seen plenty of CIAC football playoff drama over the years. Add another killer of an act.