By Jim Bransfield
NORTH BRANFORD >> In the end, it came down to big plays.
North Branford made three to Cromwell’s one, and that was enough to give the Thunderbirds a 24-6 Pequot Conference South win Friday night and keep North Branford’s slim Class S playoff hopes alive for another day.
Cromwell’s big play came early, a 32-yard touchdown strike from Emir Cirikovic to Jarius Bailey that gave the Panthers a 6-0 lead. But North Branford answered with a 28-yard TD pass from Paul Pastet to Austin Calamita, a 55-yard bomb from Pastet to Calamita that set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Pastet, and a game-wrapping 51-yard run by Josh Melaccio on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Game, set, match.
“We made too many mistakes,” said Cromwell coach Chris Eckert. “The big plays they made hurt and we couldn’t make big plays. It’s been a concern all year. But the kids played hard and showed a lot more effort today. I’m happy with that.”
Both teams played with their second-string quarterbacks. North Branford’s Eddie Miller went down with an injury last week, as did Cromwell’s Mavric Pelletier. Eckert said Pelletier is “very questionable” for Thanksgiving.
“When we lost our quarterback, Pastet had to step in,” said North Branford coach Mark Basil. “It was rough last week because he hadn’t been getting the reps in practice. But this week he got a lot of quality reps and he showed great leadership and made big plays tonight. He did a really good job.
“It was a game of big plays. I also thought Calamita had a great game.”
Calamita caught three passes for 28, 55 and 42 yards, frustrating the Cromwell defense.
“Except for the big plays, the defense played pretty well,” said Eckert. “We played hard all four quarters.”
North Branford had 272 yards of offense, but only 103 yards on the ground on 40 carries — 51 of those yards on one play. The T’birds had 169 yards in the air as Pastet completed 6 of 13 passes.
Cromwell (4-6) gained just 126 yards, 80 on the ground on 39 carries and 46 passing as Cromwell quarterbacks were a combined 6-for-15 with two interceptions.
Cromwell’s touchdown was set up when lineman Joey Chaves picked up a fumble at the North Branford 42 and returned it to the 22-yard line. A penalty and a sack moved the ball back to the 32, from where Cirikovic hit Bailey for the touchdown. Kicker Mike McNally missed the extra point, and also missed two field goals, one from 42 yards and the other from 36.
North Branford (6-4) scored at 11:18 of the second quarter on the aforementioned pass from Pastet to Calamita. But the big score came just before the half ended.
Cromwell got to the North Branford 14-yard line, but eventually tried a 36-yard field goal that was long enough, but wide to the left. On first down with just 56 seconds left in the half, the Pastet-to-Calamita duo hooked up for the 55-yard catch and run. With 4.4 seconds left, Pastet scored on a 13-yard run, diving for the pylon and landing on it for the touchdown.
Melaccio ran for both conversions and North Branford led 16-6 at the half. His fourth-quarter touchdown iced the game.
North Branford 24, Cromwell 6
(at North Branford)
Cromwell 6 0 0 0 — 6
N Branford 0 16 8 0 — 24
C—Juwan Bailey 32 pass from ()
N—Austin Calamita 28 run (Josh Melaccio run)
N—Paul Pastet 13 run (Melaccio run)
N—Josh Melaccio 52 run (Melaccio run)
Team records: North Branford 6-4; Cromwell 5-5