MIDDLETOWN >> Fourth-ranked Middletown piled up 532 yards on offense — 462 yards of that on the ground — to beat No. 5 Platt-Meriden, 56-36, in the quarterfinal round of the CIAC Class L state championship playoffs Tuesday evening at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.
The Blue Dragons earned a semifinal round rematch with Windsor, which romped over outclassed Harding of Bridgeport, 52-0, next Monday evening at 6:30.
“Middletown is very good,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said. “Their kids play hard for 48 minutes and if you don’t equal that, they take advantage. Those kids are just so tough and they play at a very high, intense level. They run, they block, they tackle very hard.”
Yet it was Middletown’s passing game that produced what both coaches called the key touchdown of the game.
Middletown (9-2) dominated the first 23 minutes, but had just a 14-0 lead to show for it. After intercepting a pass at the Platt 13-yard line late in the half, Middletown returned the favor when Tyshaun James fumbled. With 56.6 seconds left, Platt scored on a 13-yard pass from Tylon Papallo to Jake Baker and with a two-point conversion, the Panthers were right back in the game down just 14-8 despite being held to 73 yards offense.
Then came the big MHS score.
James (4-for-5, 70 yards), who had thrown just two passes in the half, hit C.J. Sprowl for 12 yards, then aired one out to Justin McMillian for 48 yards to the Platt 2-yard line. Two plays later — with just 15.1 seconds left in the half — James scored and with Mike Aresco’s kick (he was 8-for-8, and is 50-54 on the season), MHS led 21-8 at the break.
“That was huge,” said Middletown coach Sal Morello. “If we don’t score, they have the momentum and the ball to start the second half.”
Bruenn said, “That score deflated us a bit. We had a blown coverage [on the McMillian catch] and they made us pay.”
Overall, there is little question that Middletown’s ground game, particularly the running of Ibn Lombardo (21 carries, 179 yards, two touchdowns) and James (23, 161, five touchdowns) made the difference. Morello said that it was by far Lombardo’s best game.
“As the season went on I got more of a chance to play,” said Lombardo. “Every time I give 110 percent. We all do. In practice, during games, we give full effort and go as hard as we can.”
Morello is an old-time coach who loves to run the football.
“Being able to run the ball this time of year is very important,” said Morello. “Lombardo and [DeShaun] Bradshaw are a nice combination at running back.”
While Middletown led all the way, Platt (8-3) kept things interesting. The Panthers closed to 21-16 on a 15-yard TD pass from A.J. Marinelli (12-for-23, 205 yards) to Tylon Papallo at 10:59 of the third quarter. After Lombardo answered with a 60-yard TD run, Platt again stayed in the game with a 3-yard run by Papallo (9 carries, 64 yards).
But Middletown answered again on a 44-yard run by Sprowl and McMillian intercepted a Marinelli pass on Platt’s first play after the score and returned it 36 yards to the Platt 39. Three plays later James scored on an 18-yard run and Middletown led 42-24.
The Dragons scored again on a 16-yard run by Lombardo with 10:28 left to open up a 49-24 lead. Platt scored twice to cut the lead to 49-36, once on a 74-yard bomb from Marinelli to Papallo (8 catches, 138 yards) and the second on a 5-yard pass from Papallo to Jamel Holder with 3:05 to play.
But Platt was unable to stop Middletown all night and James added a 28-yard TD run with 1:17 left for the final score of the game.
“What I was most proud of,” said Morello. “Was that every time Platt did something, we answered. They are a tough matchup for us, they just are. They’re not easy to defend. although I think we did a very good job stopping their ground game. I thought we played well, but they have some very good players and that No. 2 [Papallo] is special.”
Middletown took a 7-0 first-quarter lead on a 19-yard TD run by James and built the lead to 14-0 in the second quarter on a 3-yard score by James before the teams traded late first-half touchdowns.
Platt finished with 321 yards offense, 223 in the air.
“We battled back,” said Bruenn. “We’ve trailed before, so it was nothing new. I think we were a little tight in the first half, But Middletown is just so tough.”
Form held in Class L as all four favorites — Middletown, New Canaan, Notre Dame-West Haven and Windsor won.
“For us to be successful against Windsor we have to win the turnover battle, cut down on penalties, play hard and see what happens,” said Morello.