MIDDLETOWN >> Sometimes it’s the little things that turn games around. So it was Friday night at Palmer Field.
Despite having a big statistical edge, Xavier found itself trailing North Haven by a touchdown in the third quarter. To make things worse, the Falcons went nowhere on their first possession after intermission. Then came what both coaches called a game-changing play.
Xavier kicker Andrew Verre, kicking from his 46-yard line, dropped a punt on the North Haven 1-yard line. With its back to the wall, North Haven could go nowhere. Forced to punt from its 4-yard line, all the Indians could muster was a kick to the 29-yard line and Xavier was in business.
“Field position was a big deal in the second half,” said North Haven coach Anthony Sagnella. “It gave them opportunities.”
Xavier (2-0) covered the 29 yards in seven plays with Mike Scherer scoring from eight yards out with 2:12 left in third and with Verre’s kick, tied the game. Then in the fourth quarter, Scherer, who had a breakout game completing 13-of-21 passes for 276 yards, hit John Sullivan on a 57-yard bomb with 5:55 to go for a dramatic, come-from-behind 21-14 win in front of 1,400.
“The punt was a huge play,” said Xavier coach Sean Marinan who won the 101st game of his career. “Special teams are a huge part of the game, which is something we tell our kids all the time. That punt changed things.”
Mr. Scherer changed things, too.
“I don’t think they respected our passing game, but we knew we could throw against them,” said Marinan. “Michael took a big step tonight. We had just 18 yards passing last week.”
Scherer not only threw for 276 yards, he ran for the tying touchdown and threw for the winning score. But more than that, he made big passes in big spots. In Xavier’s first touchdown drive, he completed a third down, 16-yard pass to Kaleb Lutton for a first down. He also completed a 38-yard pass to Sullivan that set up Ted Duarte’s 9-yard TD that gave Xavier a 7-0 first quarter lead.
He also completed a 26-yard pass on third down later in the quarter, almost got a touchdown on a 22-yard completion to the 5-yard line on the last play of the half and completed an enormous 17-yarder on third down that set up the tying touchdown in the third.
Scherer completed a 49-yard bomb to Ricky Murphy to the North Haven 11-yard line to open the fourth. But then the Falcons, who committed penalties this night like it was a good thing to do, penalized themselves out of scoring range.
But Scherer was nothing if not persistent. When the Falcons got the ball back with 7:17 left in the game at their own 42, it took them just three plays to score as Scherer hit Sullivan over the middle and Sullivan ran it in for a 57-yard TD that had the big crowd roaring.
“We were lousy offensively in the first half,” said Marinan. “But except for our stupidity, we were much better offensively in the second half.”
The Falcons had a staggering 11 penalties for 120 yards, including what might be a Palmer Field record six holding calls. But give the Falcons credit for creativity as they threw in two pass interference calls, a procedure call, an illegal block and a dead ball personal foul that was tacked on the end of a hold for 25 yards worth of penalties on one play.
North Haven (1-1) led 14-7 at the half on a 5-yard touchdown run by Cole Pecora (15 carries, 43 yards) and a brilliant, 33-yard interception return by Tom Gallagher with 7:16 left in the first half.
Late in the half Verre’s 44-yard field goal attempt was wide left. In the second half, the Falcons dominated, holding North Haven to 56 yards offense.
“I thought we grew up tonight,” said Sagnella. “We have a very young football team and Xavier brought out the best in us. We try to control the clock and if we had been about to do that, it might have been different. But the best team won.”
Xavier held the Indians to 149 yards while piling up 371. The Falcons had only 95 yards on the ground with Duarte picking up 61 on 22 carries. Murphy caught three passes for Xavier for 121 yards.
Xavier hosts Hamden Friday at 7 p.m. at Palmer Field.