By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Over the last few scholastic seasons, the football squad from Edwin O. Smith High School in Storrs has been foiling opening night festivities for Bristol Eastern.
And there were the Panthers again on Friday, Sept. 7, causing tomfoolery for the Lancers and when Smith scored the final 23 points of the contest, Eastern absorbed a tough 23-7 decision from Alumni Field on the campus of Bristol Eastern.
Smith’s defense was tough, led by Isiah Lovell’s four sacks, while not allowing Eastern a first down until late in the third frame.
But it wasn’t all bad, especially to start, as Eastern quarterback Justin Marshall (10-of-19 passing, 101 yards) found wide receiver Jaden Laprise (four catches, 86 yards) and turned a little dump play in a 66 yard touchdown strike with all of the yardage coming after the catch.
And off an extra point from Jack Bachand, it was 7-0 just 21 seconds into the game.
But from there, Eastern seemingly could not get off the field as Smith controlled the ball from then on out.
“We really lost the field position battle tonight,” said Bristol Eastern coach Anthony Julius. “E.O. has us pinned down pretty deep most of the night.”
Smith scored on the ensuing drive as Kobe Stigler (16 carries, 119 yards) made a mad dash to the end zone, getting to the Eastern three, and then William Tharp smashed his way in on a fourth-and-goal as his one yard plunge tied the affair up at 7-7 with 5:00 left in the first.
Eastern’s defense made plenty of stops over the first three quarters but the offense trying to get away from its own 20 yard line seemed to be an epic challenge.
“They had a lot of drives that, maybe, didn’t result in points but they flipped the field on us a lot,” said Julius of Smith. “I feel the whole first half, I don’t know if we got outside the twenty yard line. We just really couldn’t get it going again. And that’s on me as the play caller.”
It was 7-7 going into the second period when Smith scored the go-ahead points.
In a strange play, Eastern was on its own eight yard line and Smith pressured Marshall in the end zone.
He threw the ball away but intentional grounding was called and Smith was awarded a safety.
The Panthers took a 9-7 edge with 10:59 left in the half and the Lancers never drew even again.
“They brought a lot of heat,” said Julius of Smith. “They did a couple nice things. We broke down in protection a few times but the kids battled. We just got to get it coached up. We just got to get it fixed.”
Personal fouls and penalties – along with Eastern’s “D” – never allowed another point to be scored in the second quarter.
Marshall was sacked by Isiah Lovell – one of his four in the game – late in the second frame and the offense never truly got on track.
The teams exchanged interceptions with Laprise snaring one for Eastern and at the half, it was still 9-7 and anyone’s game.
In the third frame, Eastern’s Edgar Santiago made a huge fumble recovery with 4:54 left but the Lancers never got to midfield and ended up punting off the turnover.
It was still 9-7 going into the fourth but the visitors finally got on the scoreboard.
In Smith’s first play of the tilt, quarterback Jaidin Glidden found Stigler for a 55 yard connection as the signal caller faked a handoff and found the back in the middle of the field and the race was on, ending in a Panthers’ touchdown.
Off the extra point, Smith led 16-7 with 11:04 remaining.
“We blew a couple run fits and it happens,” said Julius. “[Stigler] is a great player and great players make great plays.”
And then Eastern had its best drive of the game as Marshall made a 15 yard jaunt, Bryce Curtin snared a catch and the Lancers were on the Smith 37, looking to close the deficit.
But a critical Eastern penalty and another sack by Lovell turned the ball over with 6:20 left.
Two plays later, Matt Jameson made a 38 yard dash into the goal for a touchdown and trailing 23-7 with 5:57 remaining, the game was all but over.
“The defense kept us in it for a while,” said Julius. “But when you’re on the field what felt like almost three quarters of the game, eventually, things are going to break down on you.”
Eastern went four-and-out, Smith ran out the rest of the clock as the visitors racked up a 23-7 win to open the season.
“It’s on us to try to make the adjustments we need to make on defense, get it fixed,” said Julius. “And we have to try and do that for next week.”