PLAYOFF FOOTBALL: A convincing argument by the Maloney defense

MERIDEN — Consider Tuesday night the Maloney defense’s coming-out party.

In case you didn’t know, the Spartan defenders are pretty darn good.

Facing the state’s most dynamic player in rushing and scoring leader Victor Rosa of Bristol Central, the Maloney football team more than stood its ground in the Class L quarterfinals at Falcon Field. The Spartans rolled to a 49-14 victory to advance to Sunday’s semifinals.

In bottling up the Rosa-led Rams, third-seeded Maloney (10-1) earned a home date against No. 7 Masek at Falcon Field. The Spartans will host the Panthers (9-2) at 12:30 p.m. Masek knocked off No. 2 Naugatuck 20-17 on Tuesday night.

Maloney never trailed Tuesday as its ball-hawking defense forced four first-half turnovers to set up quarter back Angel Arce (4 touchdown passes) and the offense. Maloney built a 35-14 lead by halftime and then shut out the Rams in the second half.

“You don’t know how good Maloney is until you step out on the field against us,” Maloney head coach Kevin Frederick said. “The film doesn’t do us justice as far as how physical we are. I still feel that way.

“The defense has played great all year. We expected this: The best defense in the state,” Frederick stated.

Maloney defenders made Rosa uncomfortable all night, forcing the running quarterback to throw the ball more than he likes.

As a result, Rosa threw three interceptions in the first half and two picks before his first completion.

Maloney’s Rashawn Shelton had a pair of first-half picks, and his pick-6 on the second play of the second quarter gave the Spartans a 28-6 lead.

The three interceptions and one fumble recovery Tuesday night give Maloney 29 turnovers on the season. Shelton, a senior, leads the Spartans with six interceptions. Tylee Flowers has five. 

The Spartans actually could have had a few more interceptions. They dropped a pair of Rosa passes with no Bristol Central receiver in the vicinity. Forced to throw on the run, Rosa heaved more than a few jump balls into the Maloney secondary.

“I thought we punished (Rosa) a little bit; as far as our physicality,” Frederick said. “He’s not a thrower, he’s a runner. At the next level (college), he’s going to be a receiver.“

“He doesn’t want to throw, but we wanted to get him in passing downs. We did that,” Frederick continued. “We got a good secondary and they made some plays.”

Rosa, a UConn commit, came into the game with 39 rushing touchdowns and nearly 2,600 rushing yards. Rosa, however, managed just 99 yards through three meaningful quarters against the Spartans.

He did score his 40th and 41st touchdowns of the season in the first half. Rosa finished with 128 yards on 29 carries (25 of those yards came on a run against the Maloney second-team defense in the fourth quarter).

With the Maloney starters out there, Rosa struggled to find any open space. Taking a direct snap out of a Wildcat offense, Rosa fumbled one of the few exchanges on a reverse when he and the would-be ballcarrier collided.

That fumble came on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Maloney’s Sean Finn recovered. The turnover set up Arce’s first touchdown pass to Ian Graham.

The Maloney lead grew to 14-0 as Rosa was continually stretched out by Maloney’s defense and forced out of bounds for minimal gains when not tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Graham had three tackles for loss.

The only time Rosa got around the edge of the Maloney defense, he flashed his game-breaking speed on a 59-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

“We’d been practicing all week to stop (Rosa),” Maloney senior defensive back Johnny Rosado said. “He’s a really good player; all respect to him. He’s been doing his thing all season. But we felt like he hadn’t played against the competition we had. We were ready for this.

“We felt like we had the speed on defense to trap (Rosa) inside,” continued Rosado. “Because once he got the edge, he’s got the speed to take it to the house. We felt as long as we kept him inside, we could hit him and he couldn’t do much.”

Another game-breaker awaits the Spartans in the semifinals.

Masuk’s Nick Saccu may not be as dynamic as Rosa, but he’s the Panthers’ main offensive threat. Saccu scored all three touchdowns in Masuk’s win at Naugutuck, including the game-winner with 4:12 to play.

Saccu finished with 192 yards on 18 carries Tuesday after also lining up at quarterback, wide receiver and running back for the Panthers.

Masuk head coach Steve Christy called Saccu “a joystick” after his team’s upset of Naugutuck. The plan was, and will be Sunday, to get the ball into Saccu’s hands as much as possible against Maloney.

 “I don’t know much about (Masuk), to be honest,” Frederick said. “We don’t save anything special for down the line; we empty everything out.

”We are just looking to turn the page and keep this thing going,” Frederick added. 

While the defense was shining under the Falcon Field lights, Arce took full advantage of short fields to etch his name in the Maloney record books.

Arce’s four touchdown passes give him a school-record 48 in his career. The previous mark of 46 was held by Larue Graham, Ian’s older brother.

“Offensively, we came out just exploited the holes that they had (in the secondary),” Arce said. 

Arce finished an economical 10-of-12 for 159 yards. He threw a pair of touchdown passes to fellow seniors Austin Studley and Ian Graham.

“Super-proud of him,” Frederick said of Arce. “He made some real good decisions.

“He’s got dynamic play-makers everywhere,” Frederick added. “It’s tough to guard our offense. I wouldn’t want to game-plan against us. I’ll tell you that. We can run it; we can throw it. We’re pretty balanced.”

And it helps when the defense is setting up its offense.

“The defense kind of slithers in there,“ Frederick said. “Everyone talks about the offense or the offensive line. No one has really talked about (the defense), which is kind of good for us. We’ve stayed under the radar.”

Until now. What is that they say about defense and championships? 

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