SOUTHINGTON - After 364 days, the matchup the Southington football team has been waiting for is finally here.
It was at this point last season the Blue Knights (11-0) found themselves in the same situation, with Darien (11-0) sitting between them and a berth in the Class LL title game. The Blue Wave went on to win easily, 49-7, denying Southington a chance for three straight state titles.
Throughout the offseason, 10-0 regular season and first round playoff game, that loss has served as a motivator for the Blue Knights to avoid the same type of fate tonight as they did in 2015.
“It’s definitely a motivating factor, as it is for any team,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said. “You use that as driving forces for the next time you go out there, [so] you execute better. That’s important. That’s the only thing we’ve stressed for last year is executing better and doing our thing.”
And for the group of Blue Knights players that played in that game, this has been circled on the calendar with an eagerness they have not shown throughout the previous 11, all other opponents paling in comparison to this rematch.
“We’re looking forward to it,” running back and linebacker Vance Upham said. “I’ve been waiting to play Darien. It’s going to be a dog fight just like against NFA. I can’t wait.”
Last season the Blue Wave ended Southington’s 31-game win streak as well. Now, the Blue Knights would like to return the favor and enact a little bit of revenge in the process. But they will have their work cut out for them.
Darien has collected 23 straight wins of its own and faced little resistance in doing so. Most of the Blue Wave’s wins this year have been by a wide margin, with only two games being decided by fewer than two possessions: a 42-35 win over Greenwich in Week 3 and a 37-34 overtime victory over New Canaan on Thanksgiving.
So what makes this Southington team different heading into the matchup this time around compared to the one last season?
“I think our mental game, and not saying anything about last year, but I think we have a good mental game going into this game right now,” Drury said. “I think our guys have a good mindset. Guys are locked in, dialed in and ready to battle.”
Priority No. 1 will be stopping a Darien offense that has only been held under 30 points twice. The Blue Wave have a number of weapons capable of doing damage and have stayed fairly balanced in terms of run-to-pass.
Mitchell Pryor and Finlay Collins are Darien’s leading rushers, having gained 735 and 685 yards on the ground, respectively. Neither has rushed for over 100 yards in a game often. Pryor has done it twice, while Collins three times, but both have found the end zone plenty, scoring 13 and 10 touchdowns. Both are capable receivers out of the backfield as well.
It is the Blue Wave’s passing game, though, that has the most diversity. Five different receivers have caught at least 23 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns or more, with Tim Herget (32 catches, 582 yards, six touchdowns), Max Grant (23 catches, 568 yards, eight scores) and Nick Green (27 catches, 468 yards, six touchdowns) leading the way as targets for quarterback Brian Peters.
The signal caller himself has completed 61.6 percent of his throws for 2,776 yards and 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
Most of Darien’s passing game is predicated on intermediate passes and routes across the middle of the field. It was these types of passes that did the most damage a year ago and Drury expects to see the same tonight.
“They like to hit you with that quick game to get you biting up a little bit and then take their shots over the top vertically,” the head coach said. “They get the ball to their running backs in the screen game. They really like that style.”
Teams have shown the ability to hurt the Blue Knights with that type of offense over the past few weeks. Cheshire and then NFA were both able to collect big chucks of yardage and move the ball successfully before Southington was able to pull away. The Blue Knights will have to shore up that part of their defense against the Blue Wave.
Offensively, Southington will have to remain balanced, establishing the run with Upham and then having quarterback Will Barmore take his own shots down the field to tight end Richie Rivera and receivers Anthony Plantamuro, Tim O’Shea and Jack Herms.
Much of the Blue Knights’ offense will be dictated by how Upham manages to do on the ground. Southington will need the running back to come up big once again and have what has come to be a typical game - over 120 yards rushing and at least two touchdowns - but the Blue Knights have shown they are more than capable of throwing often effectively, as they demonstrated in the first half last week against NFA.
They will have to do so against a defense that has been able to get to quarterbacks 37 times this season. Cord Fox leads Darien with 10 sacks, with Quinn Fray not far behind at nine.
To limit their effectiveness, Southington will not only need its offensive line to play well to create running lanes for Upham and a clean pocket for Barmore, it will also need to be successful moving the chains.
“We need to get more on first down,” Barmore said. “On first down we need to get more than two, three yards. We need to get five or six yards. That’s going to be key.”
This has been the matchup many have been waiting for, but to be successful this time around, the Blue Knights will have to do something they were unable to do last time - play their game and execute on both sides of the ball. Otherwise, it will another long night in Stamford.
“We have to win the field position game and the turnover game in games like this,” Drury said. “We have to be able to run our style of offense and go out there and play like our guys are capable of playing.”
David Glovach can be reached at or On Twitter: @DavidGlovach