DARIEN — Darien football coach Rob Trifone calls it “controlled hype.” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli calls it a “classic every year.”
In either case, the message is clear: The annual Turkey Bowl clash between rivals Darien and New Canaan is as big as it gets.
New Canaan (7-2) and No. 3 Darien (9-0) will kick off at 10 a.m., Thanksgiving morning, at Darien High School. It’s the first time the Blue Wave is hosting the game in Darien since 2012. They won that game, 36-23, as part of their current 37-game winning streak on their home turf.
In the past six years, the rivals have played at New Canaan’s Dunning Field twice, and at Stamford’s Boyle Stadium four times in order to accommodate the large crowds. This year’s crowd won’t be as big due to the smaller venue, and the hot ticket was sold out the first day it went on sale.
Both coaches were complimentary of their opponents.
“They’re not undefeated for nothing,” Marinelli said of Darien. “They’re a great team and they really play well together. No one has figured out the key to them. Defensively, they’re very, very good and we certainly have our work cut out for us. I think it’s going to be a great football game.”
“The thing that the general public does not understand is that New Canaan lost two games early in the season to two very good teams and they were missing several key players,” Trifone said. “All but one of those players are back and the last few weeks, they’ve looked like New Canaan always does.”
New Canaan owns a 52-38-2 advantage in the 91-year history of the rivalry, and has a two-game Turkey Bowl win streak. Darien had won five in a row from 2012 to 2016.
The rivals also have something to play for besides winning the Coaches Memorial Trophy. Darien has clinched a Class LL playoff berth and can secure the No. 1 seed with a victory.
New Canaan is on the verge of clinching a Class L bid and may have it locked up by the time Thursday’s game kicks off. Either way, the Rams can remove all doubt and earn a quarterfinal home game with a win.
Recent history for unbeaten teams in the Turkey Bowl favors New Canaan. In the 10 games played since 2009, undefeated teams have a 3-7 record, with all three wins coming from 2013 to 2015, when both teams were perfect heading to Thanksgiving.
The rivals have lit it up in the passing game.
New Canaan features the Notre Dame-bound senior Drew Pyne at quarterback and Pyne owns most of the career passing records in school history. In the Rams’ 38-20 victory over Wilton two weeks ago, Pyne hit a pair of career milestones, and he now has 101 touchdown passes and 9,029 passing yards.
This season, he’s thrown for 1,725 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 11 of those scoring strikes coming in the last three weeks. Pyne is also mobile, which creates plenty of problems for the Wave defense.
“The tough thing about Drew Pyne is you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Trifone said. “If you cover people well, he pulls the ball down and runs. He’s got a quick release and he’s particularly good at nice short, RPO, quick passes. He can throw the ball down the field like anybody, but his forte is his quick pass and his run.”
Pyne’s top target has been senior Zach LaPolice, who has 46 catches for 785 yards and 11 touchdowns. LaPolice also returns kicks, is part of the defensive secondary, and is deadly when running in space.
Junior John Wise leads the running game with 567 yards and 11 touchdowns.
For Darien, senior QB Peter Graham has come into his own this year, racking up 2,318 passing yards and 24 yards with just two picks.
The Wave’s receiving corps is deep, with four players having at least 20 catches. Senior Jackson Peters tops that group with 30 catches, 570 yards and seven TDs, and Michael Minicus has 20 catches, 498 yards, and six TDs. Senior Will Kirby is the lead back with 580 rushing yards and nine TDs.
Defensively, Darien comes at teams in Waves and has allowed 85 points in nine games, with 44 of those coming in consecutive road wins over Greenwich, 27-21, and Danbury, 26-23.
Darien has 40 sacks, led by DEs Will Bothwell and David Evanchick with 11 apiece. Senior linebackers Sam Wilton (54 tackles) and JH Slonieski (44 tackles) are the glue to the defense.
“It’s one of those games that every New Canaan and Darien kid loves to play in this game,” Marinelli said. “They’re two proud communities side-by-side with two great football programs. Every Thanksgiving, regardless of what the records are, it’s always a great game. It’s really what high school football is all about.”
When the players finally run onto the field with all the noise and excitement of the stadium around them, Trifone will have one final bit of advice: “Be in the moment.”
“Your classmates are going to be up in the stands and they’re going to dress in blue and white and paint their face, but you can’t get into that hype,” he said. “You have to execute a game plan to perfection. That takes concentration and focus.”