Tolland unable to slow down E.O. Smith

TOLLAND — All season long, Tolland has struggled to slow down opponents running game. This flaw was consistently on display in the Eagles annual Thanksgiving matchup against E.O. Smith. They allowed the Panthers to run for four touchdowns at home, and as a result ended their season with a disappointing 37-21 loss.

The Eagles (1-9) allowed three rushing touchdowns to quarterback Brad Marston and two to Anthony Stigler, and gave up a number of other big plays in the run game.

“Our defense struggled to read the plays when they ran the ball, and were a little inpatient at times,” Tolland head coach Andy Bourquin said. “We also missed some key tackles. Stigler was especially hard to stop. Every time he got the ball, he seemed to make a big play.”

The Eagles were able to hold E.O. Smith’s (5-6) run game in check for the first quarter and half. Defensive lineman Abdullah Chaudhry made a huge play when he recovered a Panthers fumble at the goal line with 4:44 remaining in the first quarter. The Eagles offensive took advantage of the defense’s performance four minutes into the second quarter when quarterback Chris Janton scored on fourth down on a quarterback sneak to give his team a 6-0 lead.

Tolland’s momentum disappeared in the final four minutes of the second quarter, in which E.O. Smith scored three touchdowns to take a 20-6 lead. The Panthers offense was propelled by the rushing attack of Marston, Stigler and Josh Benoit during this stretch. They scored their first touchdown with 3:38 remaining when Marston ran it in from 12 yards out. Tolland then immediately gave the ball back to E.O. Smith when it failed to recover a live ball on the kickoff, and Marston quickly scored on a 5-yard run. Stigler concluded the run with 1:04 remaining when he beat the Eagles on the outside and cruised to a 16-yard touchdown.

Tolland played better in the third quarter on both sides of the ball, and were able to cut the lead to 20-13 when sophomore running back Devin Kokoszka in the end zone from 16 yards out halfway through the quarter. Five minutes later, the Panthers increased their lead to 10 when Brandon Desautels hit a 37-yard field goal.

Following the field goal, Tolland again had a special teams play go against them. E.O. Smith made a gutsy call by going for an onside kick and recovered it. The Panthers quickly moved the ball with their run game, and took a 31-13 lead with 11:13 remaining in the game when Marston scored on fourth down on a quarterback sneak.

Tolland could have folded when Troy Bell intercepted Janson at the 9:41 mark. Instead, they refused to go quietly. The offense benefited from the strong winds when a very short Panthers kick gave them the ball at E.O. Smith’s 19, and scored just two plays later when halfback Austin Hainey bursted in from 10 yards out. Suddenly, the Eagles were down only 29-21 with 6:14 remaining.

All Tolland had to do was stop the Panthers on their next drive to have a shot at tying the game and sending it into overtime. Unfortunately, they were unable to stop the Panthers from making big plays. Marston displayed his throwing ability when he hit Jake Harakaly on fourth down, and Stigler would score his team’s final touchdown on a 20-yd scamper with 1:42 remaining.

“We played much better in the second half,” Bourquin said. “We did a very good job of competing hard. We were on the doorstep of stopping their offense a number of times. In the end though, we couldn’t get there when we needed to.”

Bourquin said he was very disappointed that the Eagles won just one game. However, he said that his team showed a ton of growth over the course of the season.

“Our guys never stopped competing hard, and didn’t allow themselves to get discouraged,” Bourquin said. “They matured significantly over the course of the season and became better players. We were a much better team in the second half of the season.”

Bourquin was blunt when asked what Tolland needs to do to improve next season.

“It’s about the leadership our players show,” he said. “The kids need to work hard in the offseason and do whatever they can to become better players.”

Story by Danny Atkinson

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