SOUTHINGTON — Two football teams beat last season’s CIAC Class LL state champion.
Those two teams shared Fontana Field on Friday night. So the quality of play, as expected, was high in a Connecticut Football Alliance showdown between visiting Staples and No. 2 Southington.
Unfortunately for the Blue Knights and the CCC, the FCIAC team left with the victory.
Behind the passing and running of senior quarterback Caleb Smith, Staples scored 27 unanswered points en route to a 34-27 win over Southington.
Smith accounted for all five Wreckers touchdowns. He threw two of his three TD passes to younger brother Nathan Smith and his 49-yard touchdown run with 5:30 to play provided the winning points.
Not to be outdone, Southington senior signal-caller C.J. DiBenedetto threw for 360 yards and three scores. DiBenedetto ran for a fourth touchdown, sneaking it in from a yard out with 52 seconds to play.
Staples, however, recovered the ensuing onside kick after DiBenedetto’s TD and ran out the clock.
The result left both teams with matching 2-1 records and an eye on possibly meeting each other down the road in the Class LL playoffs.
“They are a great team; their quarterback is a great player,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said. “They made a couple extra plays than us.
“(But) I’m proud of the way these guys responded; there was never any give-up out there,” Drury added. “We play these games to get better, and we are going to get better.”
A year ago, during the regular season, both Staples and Southington pinned a loss on Greenwich, which went on to win the Class LL state championship. Southington’s Week 3 win at Greenwich vaulted the Blue Knights to No. 1 in the state. Staples beat the Cardinals on Thanksgiving morning, 39-38.
Then, in last season’s Class LL playoffs, both Southington and Staples lost. The Blue Knights were upset by FCIAC representative Trumbull, while Staples fell to state runner-up Fairfield Prep.
“These guys have been in big games; we’ve been in big games,” Drury said. “You’re not quitting until the last possible second.
“I like how our defense responded (late in the fourth quarter), forcing them to punt and giving us a chance to get the ball back,” Drury added. “We responded, but unfortunately it was too little, too late.”
From the other sideline, Staples coach Adam Behrends had this observation: “Shoot, Southington has some dudes, and their quarterback can rip it. Hats off to that kid; he’s tough.
“We knew it would be a fistfight and, at some point, we knew they would punch us in the face — and they did it right off the bat,” Behrends added. “We just told our kids, ‘We have to keep swinging and get in more hits than them.’”
In the early going, Southington made taking a 13-0 lead two plays into the second quarter look easy.
The Blue Knights took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards on 12 plays. DiBenedetto hit John Flynn from 11 yards out to give Southington a 7-0 lead with 6:56 left in the first quarter.
DiBenedetto was intercepted on Southington’s second possession, but after Staples ran a mere seven plays for 26 yards in the first quarter, the Blue Knights made it 13-0 just 52 seconds into the second quarter on a 51-yard TD pass by DiBenedetto to Rashard Williams.
Southington, however, wouldn’t score again until the fourth quarter. By then, Staples had taken a 27-13 lead with 10:16 remaining in the game.
“The tide turned a little there (in the second quarter),” Drury said. “We had a good rhythm going there, but we kind of got off schedule.
“We didn’t win first or second down, which put us in third-and-longs,” Drury continued. “To be on schedule, you have to win first and second downs.”
“There was that stretch during the second quarter and third quarter when we went through a drought,” said Flynn, whose second hookup with DiBenedetto got Southington within 27-20 with 7:44 to play. “I don’t know, they made adjustments. We did too, but I don’t really know. It’s unexplainable.”
With the Blue Knights’ offense stuck in neutral, Smith and the Wreckers took control on consecutive second-quarter possessions.
Smith’s first TD pass got Staples on the board with 6:38 left in the half. He scored on a 2-yard run four minutes later to give the Wreckers a 14-13 lead at the break.
Staples extended its lead to 20-13 midway through the third period on Smith’s first of two TD passes to his younger brother Nathand. It was 27-13 when the pair hooked up again with 10:16 to play.
The Blue Knights, meanwhile, went three-and-out and punted on their only two possessions of the third quarter.
Southington finally showed some life on offense in the fourth quarter, making it 27-20 with 7:44 to play when DiBenedetto and Flynn connected from 8 yards out.
But with time on Staples’ side, Caleb Smith broke free with 5:30 to play to put the Wreckers back up by a pair of touchdowns.
After forcing the Wreckers to punt, Southington did give itself one last chance. DiBenedetto drove the Knights 90 yards in just over three minutes, hitting Williams for 33 yards and Evan Anderson for another 31 to the Staples’ 1-yard line.
DiBenedetto’s TD run marked the final points. The Blue Knights were forced to try an onside kick, to no avail.
“We have some great receivers and C.J. sees (the field) well,” Drury said. “All of our receivers were making plays. C.J. got them the ball, and we have to do that. We have to get those guys the ball. They are a big focal point of our offense.”
It was DiBenedetto’s third straight game with at least 300 yards. Williams, who finished with 188 yards on eight catches, went over the century mark receiving for the third straight game.
Anderson caught six balls for 90 yards.
But after Williams’ TD gave the Blue Knights their 13-0 lead, they managed just two first downs before finally ending their scoring drought in the fourth quarter.
In the meantime, containing Caleb Smith proved too much.
Smith came into the game as one of the state’s top quarterbacks and showed why on Friday night. Smith threw for 193 yards and three TDs, and ran for another two scores and 105 yards.
Taking a direct snap all night and running behind his 6-foot-2, 195-pound running back Alex Fiala, Smith said it was only a matter of time before his offensive line opened up a lane for him to break free on his game-deciding touchdown run.
“I’ve said it since I became the starting quarterback: Once our offense steps on the field, we know we can score at any given point,” said Smith, who started for the Wreckers as a junior last season. “We had a lot of comeback wins last year. We know our offense can do that, if we just get going.”
Staples, No. 4 in the Class LL playoff points, now returns to the FCIAC to face Westhill on Saturday. Southington, No. 6 in Class LL points, travels to West Hartford to face Hall in a CCC Tier 1 matchup on Friday night.