It was a beautiful late summer evening, but a very ugly game.
On opening night at Tiger Hollow last Friday, the Ridgefield High football team kicked off its season with a sloppy 20-7 loss to Greenwich.
Greenwich had more than 525 yards on offense as its bigger line and faster playmakers pushed the Tigers around in a manner rarely seen in the last few years.
Although the Cardinals nearly doubled Ridgefield’s offensive production and time of possession, the Tigers, remarkably, were still in the game as they drove inside Greenwich’s 10-yard line with 11 minutes to play. A touchdown would have pulled them within six points, but it wasn’t meant to be as an interception foiled the Tigers’ comeback effort and left the squad with a few question marks as they head into tomorrow’s road contest at Fairfield Ludlowe.
The 13-point victory margin for Greenwich (last season’s FCIAC runner-up) was identical to the 2011 opener between the two teams in Greenwich (16-3). Last year, though, the Ridgefield defense didn’t allow a point. On Friday night, however, a mixture of missed tackles, porous pass protection, an ineffective running game and dropped passes, combined with Greenwich’s effective hybrid-quarterback, resulted in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. Nevertheless, Ridgefield can take hope from last season, when it went on to win eight of the next nine games to make the state playoffs.
On Greenwich’s first possession Friday night, the Tigers’ defense pinned the visitors on downs inside the 10, until a late penalty flag from a Ridgefield face-mask call gave the Cardinals new life. On the next play, the Cardinals ran a reverse, and back-up quarterback Jose Melo (12-of-20, 280 yards) threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to wide open tight end Joe Kelly, giving Greenwich a 7-0 lead. It was the first catch for Kelly, who would snag four more receptions for a total of 155 yards.
The Ridgefield offense stalled as it went three and out on consecutive possessions, while Greenwich extended its lead to 14-0 with less than a minute remaining in the opening quarter on Alex McMurray’s three-yard touchdown run. Kelly’s 42-yard reception keyed the 51-yard scoring drive. A Greenwich field goal put Ridgefield behind, 17-0, three minutes later.
Thus, the Tigers found themselves down 17 points, less than 15 minutes into the season, and aside from their opening play from scrimmage, on which quarterback Connor Rowe connected with Sam Gravitte for a 30-yard connection, Ridgefield was getting manhandled. Timo Muro breathed some life into the moribund Tiger offense when he snared a 45-yard pass to put his team inside Greenwich’s 10-yard line. Yet, a bad snap to Rowe resulted in a 15-yard loss, and after another dropped pass, Gravitte missed a 49-yard field goal attempt.
Greenwich could have blown the game wide-open at that point as it drove downfield again, getting inside Ridgefield’s 10. Curiously, although they had Jesse Alderberg on the sidelines (he had kicked two field goals in the quarter), the Cardinals went for the touchdown on fourth and six.
Ridgefield held and, sparked by the defensive stop, drove 94 yards in six plays, culminating with another Rowe-to-Gravitte 30-yard completion, resulting in a touchdown at the 2:30 mark to pull the Tigers within 10, at 17-7.
The Tiger defense needed to clamp down, but the Cardinals responded by marching downfield again, a 60-yard drive highlighted by Kelly’s 49-yard reception that set up Alderberg’s 40-yard field goal as the first half ended with Greenwich ahead, 20-7.
And that was all the scoring. For the game.
Fortunately for Ridgefield, Greenwich had a third-quarter touchdown reversed on a penalty, followed by a missed field goal. Ridgefield failed to capitalize as it moved into Greenwich territory and went out on downs again.
The Tigers got the ball back and had a nice drive, highlighted by wideout Andrew Chuma’s two receptions, as the third quarter ended with Ridgefield inside Greenwich’s 10. On a crucial fourth and five from Greenwich’s eight-yard line, Rowe, under heavy pressure, tossed an interception into the end zone.
There were more chances as the Tiger defense held and the hosts regained possession with 8:30 left in the game. Ridgefield went four and out and Greenwich, despite nursing a 13-point lead, kept throwing the ball and slowing the clock down. But the ground game, headed by Mark Bernstein (125 yards) and McMurray (97 yards) came up big whenever needed to keep the first-down chains moving until the final tick of the clock.
Melo, the backup quarterback (starter Liam O’Neill was sidelined with a broken finger on his passing hand), generated most of his yardage by rolling out and repeatedly creating his own pocket and protection time. Ridgefield couldn’t stop him. McMurray, a superior safety who the started the game at quarterback, Melo and Bernstein together accounted for 500 yards of offense.
Meanwhile, the Ridgefield offense was inefficient and spotty. Rowe was 15-of-26 for 216 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was hurried by Greenwich’s pressure and ran 10 times for 23 yards, as did Will Bonaparte, the spread offense’s sole running back. Chuma, in his first offensive varsity start (he played only on defense last year) showed he could catch and run after making five receptions for 65 yards.
What stood out most was that Gravitte didn’t get his touches. In 2011, he had 1,860 total yards and 18 touchdowns. Arguably the team’s best playmaker, the senior had only two carries for 31 yards (leading the team) from a slot-back position, and added five receptions for 85 yards. He also did not return kickoffs; last year he averaged 28 yards a return.
Ridgefield head coach Kevin Callahan was blunt in his assessment of the game.
“It was a total team loss,” he said. “Our kids gave 100%, but we did not perform as well as we should have, nor as we have been in practice over the last month. Aidan Mauro had a great game, but otherwise there was no aspect of our game that I could say I was proud of. We missed far too many tackles, yet we defended well in the red zone, but we were terrible between the 20’s.
“I can’t fault out kids for being aggressive, but we were overly aggressive, which cost us. We bit on fakes way too much and that resulted in some big yardage plays for Greenwich. Our quarterback was under far too much pressure and we didn’t make the necessary adjustments on the field.
“Of course, I’m disappointed that we got out of the gate slowly, but we’re in the same position as last year after an opening loss. We’ll make adjustments and go into Fairfield on Friday night ready to play.”