MIDDLETOWN – There haven’t been many instances during Hand’s winning streak when an opponent has been within striking distance of the Tigers after two quarters.
Friday night, however, was one of those times. Xavier didn’t allow Hand to catch fire in the first half, trailed by just 10 at the break and had the ball to start the second half. And this sure didn’t sit well with senior running back Colin McCabe.
“When we have games where it’s really closer than usual at halftime, we just want to come out and light up the scoreboard,” he said.
That’s pretty much what Hand did the rest of the way at Larry McHugh Field. The Tigers scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half, extending their lead to 32 points en route to a 46-6 Southern Connecticut Conference Tier 1 victory over the Falcons.
Hand (8-0, 3-0 Tier 1), the top-ranked team in the GameTimeCT poll, won for the 32nd straight time. Xavier (4-4, 2-2) had won four of five coming in.
“Just going back to the scoring, 10-0 is just not us,” said McCabe, who rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown. “We wanted to get back on the scoreboard and jump on top of them early. Second half, new game, just tried to jump on ’em.”
After a scoreless first quarter, quarterback Phoenix Billings gave Hand the lead midway through the second when he eluded a Xavier blitz and broke away for a 23-yard touchdown run. The score capped an 85-yard drive, with Isaiah McNeilly’s kick giving the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
Xavier’s first three drives of the game ended in punts. Its fourth ended in disaster when, after Hand punted with 55 seconds left to the Xavier 15-yard line, Falcons quarterback Drew Kron fumbled on the first play.
In what seemed like a moral victory, Xavier’s defense kept the Tigers out of the end zone. McNeilly’s 22-yard field goal with three seconds left gave Hand its 10-0 lead at the break.
“You can feel good about it, we were right in the game, but it’s like we don’t want to feel good about it,” Xavier coach Andy Guyon said. “We want to make the plays, we want to compete and we want to get back to the point where we’re up 10-0 at halftime.
“It’s still a process, trying to put it all together.”
The Falcons’ opening drive of the second half ended abruptly on third-and-10, when Kron scrambled away from the rush and threw into coverage near midfield, where Conner Quinn made the interception.
It was all McCabe from that point. He covered 45 yards in four rushing plays, the last down the left side for a 13-yard touchdown. McNeilly ran it in for the two-point conversion and an 18-0 lead.
“It was good to have him back,” said Hand coach Dave Mastroianni, noting McCabe has been nursing a groin injury. “He’s a difference maker, and you could tell, he wasn’t back to where he needs to be. He’s just not in shape right now. We were able to make some adjustments at halftime to get our run game going, which was awesome.”
Xavier’s next possession stalled after three plays, with Kron getting sacked by Ben Corniello on third down. The Falcons punted and the Tigers scored on next play, a pass over the middle from Billings to Seth Sweitzer that covered 57 yards.
When McNeilly ran it in for the conversion, Hand had itself a 26-0 lead with 6:21 still to play in the third quarter.
The surge in points did not end there. Hand forced Xavier to go three and out once again, and on the fifth play of the Tigers’ ensuing possession, dual-threat back Jesse Lutz scored from four yards out.
“We knew it was coming,” Guyon said, “because of how good they are. It’s that one spark that they get. They haven’t played that team yet that’s been able to bow their neck and come back at them, and that’s a credit to them.”
Xavier’s only score followed a Billings fumble at its 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed the Falcons back to the 21, but sophomore Ethan Coady, who came on in relief of Kron for the final 10 minutes, connected with KJ Grisham for the touchdown.
“I’m truly proud of the effort, extremely proud of the fight,” Guyon said. “They are the No. 1 team in the state for a reason and they showed it in the second half.”
Mastroianni said part of his halftime talk was about getting his players to work through mistakes.
“Xavier had a good game plan for us, and I talked to them about being able to persevere, and they did, and getting back to who we were,” he said. “I think sometimes we’re in the danger of, we get too overexcited, and then we make a lot of mistakes. And we made a lot of mistakes.
“So a lot of this was, ‘hey, we’ve got to clean ourselves up, especially if we want to make a run into the possteason, which is what we’re all hoping for, and get a chance to defend the (Class L) title.”