CIAC FOOTBALL: It is the postseason clash that just had to be

CIAC FOOTBALL: It is the postseason clash that just had to be

SOUTHINGTON — What was possible when the CIAC released its Class LL bracket the day after Thanksgiving has become a reality. The Southington football team will get another shot at Darien.

The Blue Knights and Blue Wave will clash Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the Class LL semifinals. Stop us if you’ve heard that before.

Two of the state’s most consistent, if not dominant, programs will meet in the state semifinals for the third time in five years. Darien beat Southington in the 2015 and 2016 semifinals during its three-year reign atop Class LL from 2105-17.

Darien’s streak came after Southington won back-to-back Class LL crowns in 2013 and 2014.

But that’s ancient history as far as Monday’s game is concerned. In Week 2 of this season, Darien got the better of Southington again, 24-8, in a Connecticut Football Alliance matchup of teams ranked in the top 10 all season. Both go into Monday’s game at 10-1.

“We were definitely excited (when the bracket came out),” Southington junior defensive back Donnell Mackey-Woodson said. “We knew that in a rematch we could prove ourselves in states. We’re just ready to dominate and win the game.”

“I know the kids will be excited for the opportunity and the challenge,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said of the Darien rematch. “(Plus), it’s an opportunity to play a state semifinal game.”

Monday night’s site: Southington’s Fontana Field. It’s a detail that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The common thread to Southington’s three recent defeats to Darien? Each game was played in Fairfield County, either at Stamford’s Boyle Stadium or Darien High School. 

“I hope it’ll give us a slight advantage, having them come here to ‘The Dungeon,’” said senior linebacker Billy Carr, Southington’s leading tackler. “I’m confident in our abilities, our (defensive) coach’s schemes. He knows what he’s doing. We obviously held them to next to nothing last time.

“But it’s the end of the season. They are a different team; we are a different team.”

Yes, plenty has happened since the pair met on Sept. 20.

For one thing, Southington hasn’t lost since its trip to Fairfield County. Downright dominating at times, the Blue Knights have bludgeoned teams in going 10-1.

Behind its suffocating defense, Southington has allowed just 63 points in regulation during its current nine-game winning streak, which includes Wednesday night’s 13-9 victory over Ridgefield in the quarterfinals. On the season, Southington has allowed an average of 11 points a game.

Southington has been particularly crushing against the run. For the season, the Blue Knights have allowed just 635 rushing yards on 305 attempts, an average of 2.1 yards a carry.

Even in losing to the Blue Wave, the Blue Knights wiped out Darien’s rushing game. Darien senior quarterback Peter Graham, however, was the difference.

As the only quarterback to throw for over 200 yards against Southington this season, Graham tossed three first-half TD passes to guide the Blue Wave to an 18-0 halftime lead. All three went to fellow senior Michael Minicus.

After beating Southington, the Blue Wave held the No. 1 playoff spot in Class LL until losing to New Canaan 20-0 in the rivals’ annual Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving.

The loss proved costly for Darien, which dropped to the No. 3 seed behind No. 2 Southington. As a result, the Blue Wave must now travel to Southington after playing its quarterfinal at home.

Darien rebounded nicely from its Turkey Bowl loss to beat defending Class LL champion Greenwich 26-16 and set the stage for Monday night’s rematch.

“They are a well-coached team; they are going to be ready,” Drury said. “They just had a big win over Greenwich, so it’s going to be a battle. We have to make sure we play well offensively, play well defensively, win the turnover battle and just grind it out.”

Southington was 1 for 3 in those areas in losing this season at Darien.

Playing at home will help, but it won’t be enough if Southington’s offense doesn’t play a better brand of football than it did in Week 2.

The Blue Knights’ lone touchdown at Darien came with 2:12 left in a game dominated by the Blue Wave. Brady Lafferty threw the TD pass, but after starting behind center, the junior threw two first-half interceptions and was replaced to start the second half by Shane LaPorte.

Lafferty was shuffled back behind center in the second half, but the first two of what turned into four interceptions, proved costly. Lafferty completed just 12 of 37 attempts against a Darien defense that like Southington has allowed just 11 points a game this season.

“You have to put points on the board. That’s typically what it takes (to win),” Drury said. “It’s our opportunity and responsibility to do that (as an offense).

“I think we have gotten better throughout the year, and now it’s just a matter of finding a rhythm in all facets of the game.”

Lafferty has certainly found his rhythm at times since the loss. Lafferty has thrown 22 TDs and just five interceptions. In his first postseason game, he tossed his 24th TD of the season.

Southington’s ground attack has been just as effective despite a hand injury to leading rusher Dillion Kohl. The senior, who missed three of the Blue Knights’ final four regular-season games, ran for 122 yards and a touchdown against Ridgefield.

Kohl has run for 1,113 yards and 13 TDs this season. He’s eclipsed the 100-yard mark in five of the eight games he played, including a 247-yard effort against Manchester.

Fellow senior M.J. Bennett has run for 533 yards and eight touchdowns.

“I feel like we have some great ballers on our team that can make big plays,” Mackey-Woodson said. “The first game (against Darien) was earlier in the season and our team has fully developed.”

“That loss in Week 2 was tough,” Carr said. “We felt we played well as a defense. The offense didn’t play their best, but I’m confident (the offense) will be on their game Monday night.

“We are all looking forward to the rematch,” Carr added. “It’s a game that I don’t think anyone is not going to show up for.”

Graham showed up in the September meeting and is by far the best quarterback Southington’s defense has faced this season. His three TDs against the Blue Knights were part of a season that has seen him throw for over 2,600 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Graham, however, has thrown six of those picks in the past two weeks. The senior threw three interceptions in the loss to New Canaan and was picked off three more times Wednesday night by Greenwich.

Catching Graham’s passes are a plethora of receivers. Senior Jackson Peters caught 35 passes for 667 yards and seven TDs during the regular season. Ryan Mulliken (27 catches), Sean Gifford (24) and Minicus (21) are also among Graham’s favorite targets.

Will Kirby leads the Blue Wave’s rushing attack. The senior also caught 21 passes out of the backfield for nearly 300 yards during the regular season. His 15 total TDs lead Darien.

Kirby, however, was held to just 14 yards on 17 carries against Southington.

“Teams tend to change their concepts, so we are just looking at their different concepts (since Week 2),” Mackey-Woodson said. “They beat Greenwich, which is a great team. We are just going to go out and ball our ‘Boogeymen’ style. Just do what we do.”

Drury has the Blue Knights two wins from a third state title under his command. He’s led the Blue Knights to the postseason for the seventh time in his nine years at the helm.

But beating Darien would be a first, a fact that’s not lost on the head coach.

“We are going to work our butts off,” Drury said. “You don’t like to lose to anybody, but we are going to make sure we turn over every stone and make sure we are prepared to play our best football.”

It will take Southington’s best to beat the only team it’s lost to all season.

“I proud of the way our guys have responded in certain situations,” Drury said. “We just have to make sure we clean it up a little more and play smart football on Monday.

“Every week is a battle. Every week will be a hard one, so we have to make sure we take advantage of our opportunity.”