THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL: In the most classic Classic, Southington tops Cheshire in 2OT stopping 2-point try

THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL: In the most classic Classic, Southington tops Cheshire in 2OT stopping 2-point try

CHESHIRE — They were as close to beating the Southington football team as any one of them had been.

So the decision on the Cheshire sideline was unanimous: Go for it.

The Rams did just that in the 24th Apple Classic and fell inches short.

Southington stuffed Cheshire quarterback Jason Shumilla’s two-point conversion attempt in double overtime to beat the Rams 21-20 on Thanksgiving morning.

Tied 7-7 after regulation, both teams scored on their two OT possessions. But Southington’s defense made the winning stand and made Jack Barnum’s PAT after Brady Lafferty’s 3-yard touchdown pass in the second OT to Shane LaPorte the winning point.

The Blue Knights won their eighth straight Apple Classic and now lead the series 15-9.

Ironically, an offsides penalty on Southington led to Cheshire going for two points after Shumilla’s touchdown pass to tight end Nick DiDomizio. The Rams had already lined up and kicked a traditional PAT.

But the dead-ball foul wiped out Jotham Casey’s PAT and moved the ball to the 1½ yard line.

After calling time out, Cheshire decided to try to win the game.

“Once they jumped offsides, it’s half the distance to the goal and we have faith in our guys up front that we could get the yard and a half,” Shumilla said.

“We could have kicked the PAT, but the guys wanted to go win the game,” Cheshire head coach Don Drust said. “Our thought was, ‘Go out and win the game.” It’s a decision you make. You have to have confidence in your guys, and we do.

“At the end of the day, one play doesn’t define everything, it really doesn’t,” Drust added. “We played so hard and so well. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”

Both teams were already assured of a Class LL playoff spot heading into the game. And, as expected, the game was not only played at a level worthy of two teams headed to the postseason, but as even as the scoreboard reflected.

With the victory, Southington (9-1) moved up to No. 2 in playoff points and will host Ridgefield (8-2) in the state quarterfinals on Tuesday night. The Blue Knights actually finished with more playoff points than Darien, which lost 20-0 to New Canaan in the annual Turkey Bowl.

The third-seeded Blue Wave beat the Blue Knights in Week 2 of the regular season, 24-8.

Cheshire, which finished the regular season 8-2 and fell to No. 5 in the Class LL rankings, will open at No. 4 seeded Simsbury (9-1) on Tuesday. Southington beat Simsbury 35-7 this season en route to winning the CCC Division I West title.

The rest of the Class LL playoffs shook out like this after Thursday’s results: Greenwich is No. 6 (9-1) and will face No. 3 Darien (9-1), while Newtown (10-0) moved to No. 1 and will host No. 8 NFA (7-3).

“I don’t think there is any mystery why both of us are going to the playoffs,” Drust said. “Two really good teams playing on Thanksgiving morning. I couldn’t be prouder of my guys.”

Southington led 7-0, but for only two minutes in regulation. Cheshire tied the game with 8:08 to play in the second quarter.

After a scoreless second half, the teams traded touchdowns in two overtimes before Southington made the play of the game.

On that decisive play, the Blue Knights never let the Cheshire offensive line make a push, and Shumilla ran into a wall of Southington defenders.

“At first, I thought they were going to kick (the PAT) to keep it going because they’d scored two straight times (in OT),” Southington linebacker Billy Carr said. “Then their players all started going crazy.

“I was like, ‘All right, they want to get after it,’” Carr added.

As for the stop? Carr said it was a team effort.

“We just all bared down and came out on top,” Carr said. “That is what football is all about. I dove in over the top. The linemen were bear-crawling under. Max (Casella) flew in like a missile. It was just awesome.”

“That was one of most defensive games I’ve ever been a part of,” Carr continued. “I’ve been playing football for a long, long time, and that was a battle between two great teams.”

Casella agreed.

“We all thought they would go up the middle,” Cassella said. “We knew — or at least thought — we were stronger up front, and we proved it.

“We made a few mistakes on defense, but we wanted our defense out there (with the game on the line).”

The final play didn’t involve Cheshire senior running back Jake McAlinden, which was a bit surprising to the Blue Knights. They expected Shumilla to hand off to McAlinden.

McAlinden ran for a game-high 156 yards and scored on the first play of the first OT.

“Would we have gone for it? That’s a feeling thing,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said. “I may have done that in that situation. They did, and we had to respond.

“We made a personnel change and got some beef in there,” Drury added. “We expected some type of run. I actually expected a toss or something off the perimeter. But they ran right into the meat of our defense. Our guys made the play as they have all year.”

In the OT periods, McAlinden scored first from 10 yards out. Southington running back Dillon Kohl answered with a 5-yard TD run.

Lafferty hit LaPorte on a 3-yard pass prior to Shumilla's 16-yard TD pass to DiDomizio.

While the weather cooperated with sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s, the game was played in a constant wind that gusted at times to 30-40 mph. As a result, the teams’ senior running backs, Kohl (148 yards rushing) and McAlinden, dominated play over the first half. (They were named Offensive MVPs of their respective teams.)

The second half saw Southington’s vaunted passing attack come to life behind Lafferty, who was named the game’s overall MVP. The 6-foot-4 junior kept the Blue Knights’ offense on the field with several big passes.

Southington ran 47 offensive plays after halftime to the Rams’ 20.  Lafferty threw the ball 29 times in the second half and finished the game 23-of-40 for 241 yards. He had the Blue Knights in position to win the game at the end of regulation.

Lafferty’s favorite target was Josh Vitti, who grabbed eight passes for 107 yards.

Taking over with three minutes to play in regulation, Lafferty drove Southington from its own 19 to the Cheshire 28. But with under a minute to play, he misfired on three straight passes to turn the ball over on downs.

“I just knew if I trusted my mechanics, the wind wouldn’t matter,” said Lafferty, who was playing in his first Apple Classic.

“He’s showed a lot of poise (out there),” Drury said of his quarterback. “He’s a tough, gritty guy. He made some big-boy throws.”

Cheshire’s only scoring threat after halftime came on its first drive of the third quarter, which ended when Casey missed a 39-yard field goal wide left.

After Casey missed, the Blue Knights forced Cheshire to punt on its next four possessions of regulation.

Southington’s best chance to score in the second half came at the end of the third quarter. Despite throwing into a strong wind, Lafferty drove the Blue Knights to the Rams’ 8.

But Lafferty fumbled a shotgun snap on second-and-goal and the ball was recovered by Colby Griffin, Cheshire’s Defensive MVP.

In the first half, Kohl ran for a 24-yard touchdown to give Southington a 7-0 lead with 10:18 to play in the half. McAlinden promptly broke off a 56-yard run to set up Shumilla’s tying quarterback sneak less than two minutes later.

Kohl’s touchdown run capped off a 95-yard drive by Southington. Kohl, who ran the ball seven times on the drive for all but nine yards, had 99 of his 148 yards by halftime.

The Rams had a golden opportunity to score first with under a minute to play in the first quarter.

McAlinden broke off a 22-yard run to the Southington 15. The Rams got to the Blue Knights’ 8, but an inside handoff to lineman Sean Cangiano resulted in a fumble at the Southington 5 that was recovered by John Carreiro, who was named Southington’s Defensive MVP.

The Blue Knights then went on their 95-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead.

“I told everyone that was asking, there is no guarantee win for us and no guarantee win for them,” Shumilla said. “It was going to be a 50-50 game. It was just a matter of who would make that one big play. Unfortunately for us, they made it.”