HARTFORD >> This was an upset that likely cost Cromwell more than a game.
The Panthers, on the strength of a four-game winning streak, had moved into the Class S playoff picture, going into Saturday’s game with SMSA/University at Dillon Stadium ranked No. 6 in the CIAC Class S playoff ratings.
But following what can only be called a mail-it-in effort that resulted in a 36-19 loss, Cromwell tumbled to ninth – one spot out of the elite eight – and with a daunting schedule coming up, the Panthers are in a position of having to win at least four out of five and more likely having to run the table.
Cromwell coach Chris Eckert took no prisoners.
“We were terrible,” he said. “We weren’t physical, our technique was poor and our effort was poor. We had no emotion either on the field or on the sideline. The kids didn’t want to be here.”
Things started well for the Panthers (4-2) as they took a 7-0 lead on a lucky 37-yard touchdown pass from Mavric Pelletier to Jarius Bailey at 7:39 of the first quarter. It was lucky because Bailey wasn’t the intended receiver. The ball was intended for Antwaum Burney, but it bounced off his hands and those of a defender into the hands of Bailey who ran it in from the 15-yard line.
The 7-0 lead didn’t last long. SMSA/University was able to move the ball on the ground all day and finished with 310 yards on the ground in a stunning 61 carries. The Tigerhawks capped a nine play, all-on-the-ground, 65-yard drive to pull with a point on Kadeem Johnson’s 10-yard run with 1:48 left in the first to cut the Cromwell lead to 7-6.
SMSA/University (3-3) took the lead with 5:09 to play in the half on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Wilfredo Alicea (3-for-10, 71 yards) and a two-point conversion run by Ezequiel Ortiz. The Tigerhawks dominated play most of the rest of the way.
“All wins are big,” said SMSA/University coach Graham Martin, the former longtime Bulkeley coach. “I’ve been coaching 44 years, so wins are always good. But this was a special game for us. Cromwell has a reputation and our kids wanted this one. But Chris [Eckert] does a good job and we caught some breaks.”
The Tigerhawks made their own breaks, too. They sacked Pelletier (23-for-40, 276 yards) seven times for a loss of 43 yards. More than that, their defense bent but didn’t break. Four times Cromwell was in position to score in the second half and four times the Panthers came up empty.
Cromwell had a first down at the 26, but that ended in a missed 46-yard field goal by Mike McNally. They also got to the 14, 18 and 9 yard lines and came away with no points each time.
“That’s a token of a team that overrates itself and underestimates the opposition,” said Eckert. “When you have opportunities and don’t finish, that’s a sign they want it more than you do.”
Cromwell closed to within a point with 50 seconds to go in the first half when Kristian Sapp (11 carries, 58 yards) scored on a 2-yard run, capping a 13-play, 62-yard drive. But the kick was blocked – as was another Mike McNally PAT later in the game – and that was as close as Cromwell got.
SMSA/University dominated the second half.
The winners built a 20-13 lead on Ortiz’ (15 carries, 61 yards) 9-yard run with 6:22 left in the third, and scored again on Ortiz’ second TD, a 1-yard plunge with 54 seconds remaining in the quarter. The conversion run by Alicea gave the Tigerhawks a 28-13 lead.
Cromwell got to the 9-yard line on its next possession, but a fourth down pass from Pelletier to Bailey came up short.
Martin practically handed Cromwell a touchdown when, for some reason, he went on fourth and one from his own 18-yard line. The run came up short and Cromwell instantly scored on a pass from Pelletier to Bailey with 6:46 to play. But with a chance to make it a one possession game, McNally’s PAT was blocked.
The ensuing onside kick didn’t go the required 10 yards and SMSA/University moved to the Cromwell 6-yard line before fumbling the ball with just over a minute to play. It made no difference as three plays later Edgar Torres intercepted Pelletier at the 17-yard line and ran it in for the touchdown. Johnson (16 carries, 130 yards) ran for the conversion for the final points of the day.
Cromwell had just 101 rushing in 27 carries. The final stats were close as SMSA had 381 yards to Cromwell’s 377.
“We’re very young,” said Martin. “Of our 22 position players, 15 are either freshmen or sophomores. But we lift every day. We’re small, but we’re strong. The kids are beginning to feel confident. We’re trying to teach them how to win, so yes, this was a pivotal game.”
Cromwell is at Enfield Friday at 7 p.m.