MADISON — Phoenix Billings and the Hand football team understand the pressure which comes with being part of a team which has won two consecutive state championships. Billings and company showed no signs of that pressure Friday evening.
Behind the arm of Billings, legs of Colin McCabe, an opportunistic Hand defense, and just an all around solid effort, the top-ranked Tigers continued their dominant run with a 49-14 victory over Notre Dame-West Haven at Strong Field at the Surf Club in Madison in the season opener for both teams.
“We do not think about what happened in the past,” Billings said after throwing for three touchdowns and running for another. “We have a lot of guys who were not on those teams. We wanted to establish a new identity tonight.”
The victory was Hand’s 25th in a row dating back to its last loss nearly two years to the day against Shelton in 2017. Since that defeat, the Tigers have gone on to win a pair of Class L state titles.
“Football is playing defense and running the football,” Hand coach Dave Mastroianni said. “We may look fancy with the spread, but we know to be successful, we have to run the ball and play defense.”
While Billings came in highly regarded, it was the entire Hand offense which made a statement. The Tigers gained 316 yards of offense in the opening half and finished with 411 in the game.
McCabe was impressive from start to finish, gaining 237 yards in the opening half, and finishing with 324 yards rushing on 20 carries. McCabe also ran for a pair of touchdowns and caught another.
“Words can’t describe how much credit I have to give to the offensive line,” McCabe said. “They were great. They are the best in the state.”
The Tigers got things going quickly in the contest, taking a 28-0 lead before Notre Dame picked up its initial first down of the contest.
Special teams helped produce the first score of the year for the Tigers as a shanked punt by the Green Knights was picked up by Austin Doyle and returned for a 12-yard score just 1 minute, 32 seconds into the contest.
Billings wasted no time on Hand’s second drive, capping a 3-play, 49-yard drive with a 21-yard scoring strike to Isaiah McNeilly for a 14-0 lead 3:26 in. The Green Knights fumbled two plays later and Billings capped the 15-yard drive with a 1-yard score with 4:55 gone by.
“We came out with the intensity I feel every team should come out with,” Mastroianni said. “It is opening night. Notre Dame is a better team than the score indicates. They are a pretty good team. They will do well this year.”
Billings was at it again on Hand’s next drive. The senior capped a 49-yard drive with a 19-yard scoring strike to Jesse Lutz for a 28-0 lead 2:13 later.
“I am proud of them,” Mastroianni said of his team. “Any time you get a win, you have to be proud. I would be proud in a loss as well as long as we are working hard. We have a lot of mistakes to fix, but I am proud of the way we played.”
The Green Knights, who gained just 4 yards of offense in the opening quarter and 77 in the first half, finally created a scoring opportunity when the defense forced a Billings fumble. Tommy Candelora returned the loose ball for a 67-yard score with 2:29 to go in the opening quarter, getting the Green Knights within 28-7.
“They are as advertised,” Notre Dame coach Joe DeCaprio said of Hand. “We thought we could do some things against them and we couldn’t. We have a very skilled team. It is hard to say at 49-14, but we are a really good football team. I don’t know that there is a team better than that in the state.”
Hand extended the lead back to 28 points thanks to the running of McCabe. The senior busted loose up the middle and raced 85 yards for a toucdown, which was matched 26 seconds later on a 65-yard score by Notre Dame’s Mark Altieri.
Billings and McCabe fittingly capped the first half scoring when the duo executed a perfectly designed dump pass which saw McCabe wait for a block and scamper 35 yards for a score with 4:22 remaining in the half.
Hand held Notre Dame to 110 yards of offense in the contest, with Altieri rushing for 79 yards for the Green Knights.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Colin McCabe: Hand senior ran for 324 yards and two touchdowns, and also caught a touchdown pass in the opening win.
“We are not going to quit. We want to show the younger kids how we are going to keep playing hard. We may be getting beat up, but we will keep getting up.”
— Notre Dame coach Joe DeCaprio
HAND 49, NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN 14
NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN7 7 0 0 — 14
HAND 28 15 6 0 — 49
H- Austin Doyle 12 yard blocked punt (Isaiah McNeilly kick) 10:28
H – Phoenix Billings to McNeilly 21 pass (Run failed) 8:34
H – Billings 1 run (McNeilly kick) 7:05
H – Billings to Jesse Lutz 19 pass (McNeilly kick) 4:52
N – Tommy Candelora 67 fumble return (Aidan Walsh kick) 2:29
H – Colin McCabe 85 run (McNeilly kick) 8:16
N – Mark Altieri 65 run (Walsh kick) 8:03
H – Billings to McCabe 35 pass (McNeilly run) 4:22
H – McCabe 24 run (Kick failed) 6:08