WINDSOR >> Known for its high-flying, air attack offense, New Canaan had to win a different way on Tuesday in nearly freezing rain conditions at Jack O’Brien Stadium in the quarterfinals of the Class L playoffs.
It did it with defense.
The Rams intercepted Jakhari Grant three times, recovered one fumble and collected three sacks to advance to the state semi-finals for the 10th straight year. In the process ending the defending Class L-Small champion Windsor’s 22-game winning streak with a 21-6 win.
The New Canaan win also avenges a 2012 loss to Windsor in the Class L semi-finals — the only time since 2006 the Rams did not play in a state final.
New Canaan will host its semi-final vs. No. 7 Notre Dame-West Haven after the Green Knights beat No. 2 Harding 34-0.
“For my seniors I’m just so happy that we’re able to get one more home game,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “We only had four home games all year.”
New Canaan quarterback Michael Collins will be the first one to tell you that he didn’t play his best game, but he didn’t need to worry, because his defense stepped up time and time again.
“Our defense won it for us,” Collins said. “I did a bad job getting the ball out to our receivers and athletes — but today our defense really stepped up and made plays for us.”
And the player with the biggest step was Kyle Smith.
After both Cognetta brothers — Matt and Mike — left games with injuries, Smith filled in anywhere and everywhere he could.
“Somebody made a comment about how they were going to shut him out tonight so I think he had something to prove,” Marinelli said.
Smith had an interception and a touchdown run to help the Rams on both sides of the ball. The run came on a key, possible 14-point swing.
What was most likely the play of the game, a roughing the punter penalty on Windsor midway through the third quarter, New Canaan retained possession around midfield and continued to move the ball down the field.
“It’s big,” Windsor coach Rob Fleeting said. “Some thought that when the ball touched the ground that the punter’s a runner and you can tackle him. It’s high school sports and it’s weird. Sometimes when you’re doing special teams your not discussing rules, you’re talking about who should be where and who should be covering what. So that’s a case of a kid not knowing what the rule was.”
Smith scored from 1-yard out to give the Rams their third touchdown of the game and put it out of reach for the struggling Windsor offense.
And with Windsor attempting to mount a comeback late in the fourth, Smith picked off Grant.
The Rams did it with defense and Marinelli was quick to assign credit to his defensive coordinator Chris Sylvester.
“He played for us,” Marinelli said. “He’s been coaching with us for 13 years, he was the Gatorade Player of the Year in 1993 — he’s the guy who put together the whole game plan with the other coaches. He did a tremendous job.”
But of course there was offense too.
Before leaving the game, Matt Cognetta helped engineer a nine-play drive that led to a Peter Swindell 18-yard touchdown catch from Collins.
On the next New Canaan possession Mike Cognetta ran in from two yards after a bad snap on a Windsor punt attempt gave the Rams the ball with just two yards to go.
Windsor made it a game late in the second as Isaiah Huff intercepted his first of two Collins throws to set up a 14-yard touchdown pass from Grant to Tyler Coyle.
What kept Windsor alive for so long was two field goal misses by Swindell — the state’s most prolific kicker in history. He missed from 43 and 39 yards in the first half.
Windsor senior running back Bennie Fulse — who rushed for over 1,000 yards each season — was held to 70 yards on Tuesday, his lowest since Oct. 24, 2014.
“Defensively I think our kids, especially on the defensive line and linebackers did a great job stopping the run,” Marinelli said.
New Canaan 21, Windsor 6
New Canaan: 7 7 7 0 — 21
Windsor: 0 6 0 0 — 6
(at Jack O’Brien Stadium)
NC-Peter Swindell 18 pass from Michael Collins (Swindell kick)
NC-Michael Cognetta 2 run (Swindell kick)
W-Tyler Coyle 14 pass from Jakhari Grant (Grant pass failed)
NC-Kyle Smith 1 run (Swindell kick)
No scoring plays
Records: New Canaan 10-1; Windsor 10-1.