By John Goralski
Vance Upham bounced off two defenders on Southington’s first drive and pushed his way toward the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown run. In the waning minutes of the quarter, Upham’s six-yard plunge gave the Knights a 20-0 lead.
Alessio Diana broke into the backfield at the end of the first half and rumbled 61 yards to give the Knights a 34-0 lead. Diana had just six carries, but he entered halftime with 104 rushing yards.
For years, Simsbury has been known for their multi-pronged running attack, but on Friday, Sept. 26 it was Southington that was leading the charge. A sophomore and a junior, dubbed by some as ‘Thunder and Lightning,’ have turned the Blue Knights from a pass-first offense into an overwhelming, balanced attack.
“Our O-line did great today, and that helped us do the things we do,” said Upham, a sophomore. “He’s more of the speed, and I’m more about power, but we alternate and stay aggressive.”
Diana is the elder statesman in the backfield, and he laughed at the nickname during a postgame interview. “We try to switch up the roles sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll be the ‘Thunder’ and he’ll be ‘Lightning,’ but we’ll see if we can continue to do it in New Britain [on Oct. 10].”
The Knights are beginning to click as they head into their off-week with a perfect, 3-0 record. The special teams problem seems to be cleared up. The passing game has been as crisp as last year’s championship season. The defense has been awesome, but it’s the rise of the running game that has really charged the Knights in their first three contests.
At halftime, Thunder and Lightning had accounted for 176 yards and three scores. Simsbury opened the game with a 52-yard run, but the Trojans entered the break with just 50 rushing yards and a pair of turnovers.
“It all starts with the offensive line. Those guys have been working their tails off,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “The running backs saw the holes great. They hit the holes. They protected the football, and they got yardage after the handoff. They really ran tough.”
Since the dawn of the air raid offense in the late 1990s, Southington’s offense has been built on the passing game as receivers spread the field to open up the run. This year, the Knights have turned that approach on its head as teams try to control the ground attack. With 622 rushing yards in three contests, Southington’s runners are just behind the passing game (733 yards).
With the team’s up-tempo style, opponents have struggled to get the right personnel on the field. Southington is able to run against passing defenses or pass when teams are trying to stifle the run. Drury credits quarterback Jasen Rose with balancing Southington’s offense.
“We have a 180-pound running back and a 200-pound running back that both run the ball hard, you need a quarterback that can really run that style of offense,” said the coach. “Jay has really done a great job commanding that, and we have four, five, or six receivers that can all catch the ball and get up field after the catch.”
Against Simsbury, Rose was nearly perfect. He missed just three passes in 22 attempts (86.4 percent) as he connected with five different receivers for 190 yards and two scores. The Trojans adjusted to the run at the start of the second half, but Rose marched 80 yards down the field to give Southington a 47-0 lead, and Drury emptied his bench.
Alex Jamele averaged 11.7 yards per reception to finish with 82 yards. Kyle Borawski (66 yards, TD) averaged 11 yards per catch. Matt Maxwell scored. Diana made one catch for 18 yards, and the Knights averaged 10 yards per catch.
Upham credits the receivers for the running game, too.
“It helps to have such great receivers,” he said. “They block a lot, and they’re a big help on the edge when we run. It’s been amazing.”
On defense the Knights were just as dominant, holding Simsbury under 200 yards in total offense. Matt Koczera and Logan LaRosa led the blitz with seven tackles apiece. Matt Maxwell and LaRosa recovered fumbles. Drew Barmore and Anthony Plantamuro intercepted passes. Barmore returned his interception 28 yards to give Southington their largest lead of the game, 47-0.
“We wanted to play disciplined football, and I think we did a great job in all three phases of the game,” said Drury. “Our defense did a great job of caging the quarterback in. With those guys that can run, that’s what you have to do. They start running up the field and they get up underneath you, so we made some adjustments.”
Simsbury, on the other hand, wasn’t able to make those adjustments. Southington’s rookie runners proved too much to handle, but that has been true in all three games this season.
“We did a lot of talking during the off-season. We knew that we were going to run the ball a lot, so our focus was going to be to help the offense as much as we can every game,” said Diana. “We wanted to show [Simsbury] that we could also run. We knew that Alex is one of the best receivers in the state. We also have KB (Borawski), so we wanted to show them that we could run the ball, too.”
Now, the Knights will have a week to rest and regroup. Southington has no game scheduled this weekend, but play will resume in New Britain on Oct. 3. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
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By John Goralski