By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central football team gave its counterparts from across town everything it could handle, and more, in the annual Battle for the Bell on Thanksgiving from Muzzy Field in Bristol.
And in the 55th edition of the cross-town classic, Bristol Eastern came away with another big defensive effort as the Rams fell 21-18 in the closest game to date since the squads engaged in a 14-14 stalemate back during the 2006 contest.
Central (4-6) made things tricky for Eastern (9-2) but in the end, it was the Lancers’ big defensive stops that made the ultimate difference in the game.
“Early on, I’m not sure what was really going on there but we gave up a couple big plays,” said Eastern coach Mike Archangelo about the defense. “We had to make some adjustments and once we made those adjustments, we were able to control things and made some more adjustments from there.”
Kyle Porter led the charge with a couple sacks, tackles for losses, and put in the go-ahead score for Eastern off an end zone fumble recovery.
Kyle Baker whipped up an interception. Kenny Smith had a sack of his own. Sean Aiudi also made life miserable for Central on the defensive end of things.
Offensively, Gerry Ouellette – the Bristol Eastern offensive player of the game – zipped up 211 yards and two touchdowns off 26 carries, accounting for 88-percent of Eastern’s total offense on the afternoon.
Central made some critical defensive stops throughout the game and each time it looked as if Eastern was going to add an insurance score on the board, the Rams found defensive answers to limit that offensive onslaught.
“I thought our kids certainly played their butts off,” said Cintorino. “And I thought defensively, we played really well. It was a couple of big breaks that (Eastern) had in there. But all day long, I thought our kids got to the line of scrimmage, that’s where the game was going to be played, and I thought we did a pretty good job defensively up front.”
For the Rams, Central’s offensive player of the game – Tyler Burrow – kept the ball moving and racked up 21 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown as his offensive line allowed him more than a couple of holes to escape through.
Quarterback Jarrett Michaels hit a career high 11-of-26 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
Taylor Whitten (4 receptions, 32 yards), Drew Lee (3-43, two touchdowns), Burrow (2-28) and Keon Walton (2-24) led the offensive charge for the Rams.
“Burrow played his butt off all day,” said Cintorino. “Jarrett had some opportunities there and was playing hard at quarterback. All those kids did (and) defensively, up there on the line (as well).”
But the rain from the previous night had a hand in the ultimate decision of the game and when both squads had to operate on the soaked-filled, baseball infield areas, it made for a messy encounter.
All the muck made things hazardous on the field for both squads. But the early play in the mud seemed to hamper Eastern more in the showdown.
There were more than a few fumbles in the contest thanks to that mud and the slippery conditions.
“We had a bunch of quarterback exchanges that were tough and we were trying to run out of the mud the whole time,” said Archangelo. “It felt like every series, we were in that mud.”
“It was tough.”
But Central attacked first and quickly put some points on the board thanks to the efforts of the speedy Burrow.
Central needed just four plays to get into the end zone as Burrow capped off the drive with a 26 yard, mad dash into the goal – eluding several tacklers along the way – as the Rams went up 6-0 in just 1:38.
But Eastern struck back later in the frame as Ouellette slipped past three Central defenders as he ran up the Rams’ sideline for a 23 yard touchdown jaunt to make it a 7-6 game with 5:09 left in the first.
Eastern never trailed from that point in the game.
However, the scoring in the half would come to a crashing halt as those lousy field conditions didn’t help as fumbles, gaffes, goofs, and missed opportunities kept both squads going in reverse.
And that meant a close score at the half.
“We kind of limited the number of points that they got,” said Cintorino. “They’re known to run three plays and run them well (using) sweep, power, and isolation. We did a good job on that for the most part.”
Off a squib kickoff that was recovered by the Lancers’ Mike Belton, Eastern retook possession of the ball but turned it over on downs.
The returning Baker picked off a Michael’s pass but the Lancers’ gave the ball right back off a Curtin fumble as Eastern’s 7-6 edge lasted to end of the first stanza.
Off a Central punt early in the second frame, the Lancers were looking to get away from its end zone. But Lee picked off an offering by Curtin, ran it back 19 yards, and had the Rams on the Eastern’s three yard line with a fresh set of downs.
However, Central was forced to attempt a 17-yard field goal. But Burrow missed the kick wide right as the score remained 7-6 in Eastern’s favor with 6:20 remaining in the first half.
After the teams exchanged punts, Central got the ball back off another Eastern fumble but could not score as the half ended with the Lancers still on top by a single point.
To open the second half, Eastern got on the board quickly as Ouellette made the biggest rush of the contest.
Breaking a tackle, Ouellette turned on his jets for a 64 yard TD gallop and off a Jeremy Meccariello extra-point, Eastern’s edge reached 14-6 with 11:11 left in the third tilt.
Off a three-and-out by the Rams, the Lancers looked poised to score once again as Ouellette made a huge 57 yard charge down the field to get Eastern within three yards of the end zone.
A critical holding penalty on the Lancers stopped the drive dead in its tracks. Eastern’s 26 yard field goal attempt did not find the uprights as Central took control of the ball with 6:03 left in the third period, trailing by eight.
But Central made Eastern pay for the missed kick and Lee collected the first of his two touchdown receptions.
Staring at a 3-and-9 situation on Eastern’s 29 yard line, Michael’s slipped a pass over to Lee as the receiver eluded several tacklers, sprinted to the right sideline, and tight-walked his way into the end zone to make it a 14-12 game.
The Rams elected to run the ball in for two points and Burrow was tasked with the rush in an attempt to tie the game up at 14-14.
Burrow made his move, bounced off the pile of humanity in front of him, took a second stab at it from the right side but was stopped by Ken Smith before he made it into the end zone as the Central deficit remained two-points with 3:51 remaining in the period.
Consecutive fourth down turnovers led to the game’s fourth and final frame as Ouellette – taking a direct snap off a 4-and-4 situation slipped and conjured up only one yard for a giveaway while Taylor Whitten barely missed making a fourth down reception.
With 11:55 left to play, Eastern had control of the ball and a 14-12 edge in hand.
The Lancers couldn’t do anything off the turnover but the plays of the game were about to unfold.
Off a beautiful punt by Meccariello – placing the ball at Central’s own seven yard-line – and thanks to a huge tackle for a loss by Porter, the Rams were backed up to its own one.
“Porter is a good player,” said Cintorino. “We had to try to keep him out of the backfield. It’s not about stopping him somehow, it was slowing him down.”
As Central attempted to put the ball into play just a foot away from its own goal, the Rams hiked the pigskin, fumbled the ball in the end zone and Porter quickly pounced on the ball for his second defensive touchdown of the year.
With 8:10 left in the game, the Lancers nabbed a 21-12 tilt and more importantly, a two-possession lead.
But credit belonged to the Rams as it quickly marched down the field and off some huge catches by Whitten and rushes by Burrow. Central was knocking on Eastern’s doorstep and camped on its 12 yard-line.
However, on a fourth-and-short situation, the Bristol Eastern defensive player of the game, Porter, tackled Burrow for a loss and with 3:37 remaining, the Lancers took hold of the ball and time was running out on the Rams.
Ouellette made five straight rushes to attempt to run out the clock. But Eastern was forced to punt late and with just precious few minutes remaining, Central set itself up for one, final score.
Stuck on Eastern’s 13 yard-line, Michaels made one last thrown to Lee in the end zone and the duo made a scoring connection as the final buzzer sounded.
The final score saw Eastern wrangle up a 21-18 victory for the Lancers’ seventh straight Thanksgiving Day victory in a row, which is the squad’s best stretch of wins ever against its arch-rival.
“It feels good…it’s great for the kids,” said Archangelo of the win. “These are memories they are going to take for the rest of their lives. It’s something they can sit out here and tell their kids and their kids, kids one day.”
“It means a lot to them.”
But Central made it a battle and in the end, the Rams were right in it.
“Credit to (Eastern),” said Cintorino. “That’s a really good football team. Their record’s what it is for a reason. (But) we’re three points short right now…And that’s the bottom line.”
NOTES…Christian Hildebrand was Central’s defensive player of the game and had a fumble recovery for the Rams…Even in the victorious effort, the Lancers missed the playoff. Eastern failed to nab the eighth and final seed as Daniel Hand (8-3) finished the season with 1,310 points to earn the spot while Eastern (9-2) tallied 1,300 for tenth place. Naugatuck would have beaten the Lancers via tie-breaking criteria.
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver. com.