AVON, Conn. -- For Phillips Academy-Andover, this was not the way it wanted to finish.
After running the table during the regular season to go unbeaten, the Big Blue found themselves in a perpetual quagmire against Brunswick School in today's Jack Etter Bowl.
During the first 22 minutes, Andover's offense struggled to move the football with any consistency, and the defense had no clue on how to stop Bruins quarterback Billy O'Malley. The junior signal-caller was riddling the Big Blue secondary at will, throwing for three scores in building a 21-6 lead.
For the Andover fans who made the two hour-plus trip to picturesque Avon Old Farms School's Ryan Field, their silence was contagious — all but excepting the fact that Brunswick (based out of Greenwich, Conn.) was the better team. Late in the third quarter after O'Malley connected with wide receiver Malik Wilder for a 57-yard scoring strike giving the Bruins a 22-point advantage, the Big Blue faithful were virtually in shock and awe.
But that is when things changed. Not once did Andover believe it was out it. A break here or there was all it would need to change the complexion of this game Their wish came true as the Big Blue demonstrated tremendous resiliency by scoring 29 unanswered points to power past Brunswick, 35-28.
"I knew their initial lead would not hold up," Big Blue head coach Leon Modeste said. "We just had to do something positive. Our game plan was to control the tempo and keep their offense on the sideline because it is such a tremendous offense. Once we were down we went to the spread but still ran the ball and that was the adjustment we made in the second half."
The groundwork for this comeback began a week ago after Andover (9-0) stormed back to beat long-time rival Phillips Exeter Academy in the closing minute.
The Big Blue's 'been there and done that' attitude certainly played a major role in this triumph.
"I'm just so happy with the way our defense adjusted against, probably, the best offense we've seen all year," Modest said. "We made some adjustments and stopped some of those big plays they were having success on. That team was very-fast and we weren't use to that type of speed."
The Big Blue's resurgence started once senior running back Ryder Stone blasted through the defense for a 25-yard touchdown run with 2:55 left in the third to make it 28-12. O'Malley, who literally was having his way in the first half having completed 7 of 14 passes for 151 yards and three touchdowns, found the road a bit rougher following his scoring pass to Wilder. After Stone's scoring run, O'Malley, who came into this contest having thrown for 1,929 yards and 28 touchdowns, went 7-for-19 for 103 yards and no touchdowns. He finished his day completing 12 of 26 passes for 251 yards. The 28 points was also the lowest point total put forth by the Bruins his season. Brunswick came in averaging 45 points-per-game.
The Big Blue secondary, led by senior defensive back Brandon Michel, made the adjustments to the Bruins' speedier wide outs, hanging with them and disrupting passes that allowed PA's offense to regain possession of the ball.
"We just needed to stay confident as a defense," said Michel. "In the second half we were able to re-group and we all trusted one another and each person's responsibilities. If we continued to do that we felt we could shut down their offense as a whole and that's what we did. We knew they had a talented offense but at the same time we knew we could compete with them. We knew our offense could come back and put points on the board. But in order to stay in the game we needed to prevent them from scoring, especially in the second half."
After Brunswick (7-2) did nothing offensively following the Big Blue's score, Andover got the ball back on its own 30. Behind the solid running of Stone, who put forth a workman-like effort, gaining 217 yards on 33 attempts, the Big Blue managed to reach the Bruins' 6-yard line. Stone finished the 70-yard march with a sprint into the end zone. His ensuing two-point conversion run had Andover down by only eight points at 28-20 with 11:30 left.
Over the next four minutes, Brunswick had possession of the ball twice, once courtesy of a Jack Varvel pickoff of a Ian Maag pass, but failed to move the chains. The Big Blue re-gained possession at the 7:20 mark on their own 29. Realizing every play would critical to have a shot to come all the way back, Andover orchestrated a 71-yard drive with a mix of pass and run. Moving the ball to the Brunswick 38 and facing a third-and-11, Stone got the call again and the Calgary, Alberta native didn't disappoint. Taking a draw from Maag, Stone broke through the Bruin defense for the touchdown. Now trailing by two points, Stone tied things at 28-all after bouncing off a pair of tacklers and reaching the right corner of the end zone on the conversion run with 4:22 showing.
"I knew we could come back," Stone said. "I'll admit we were asleep in that first half. We were struggling but we pulled through. It took a little while but once we stepped up and started to make some plays we knew we had it. We found some real success on the ground. There were some great holes and some great blocking up front."
With their confidence rattled, Brunswick looked like a unit dazed and confused. Its objective was to get back into sync and hope for the best. Inside PA territory and facing fourth down, O'Malley's saw receiver Henry Taylor had a step on Michel. But his throw was just out of the senior's reach, giving the ball back to the Big Blue.
On first down, Maag (10 of 27 for 144 yards) pumped fake a bubble screen in which the Bruins’ defenders bit on thus leaving senior wide receiver Matthew Rusk-Kosa all alone for a well-executed 66-yard pitch and catch to put Andover ahead to stay with 2:45 remaining. Brunwick's final attempt to tie matters faded after O'Malley was sacked for a 3-yard loss on fourth down.
The Bruins, whose last bowl appearance came in 2006 in a loss to Belmont Hill, got this contest started in the right fashion when O'Malley found Wilder for a 32-yard scoring pass. The Big Blue answered on their opening possession. A 50-yard kickoff return by Michel would lead to a Michael Moore 1-yard touchdown dive. The PAT was blocked and Andover trailed 7-6.
O'Malley's rein over the Big Blue secondary continued during the Bruins' next possession. A pair of passes to Wilder and Dyland Wadsworth set up a Wilder 29-yard scoring grab to make it 14-6 late in the first quarter.
Brunswick added to its total with less than four minutes to go before the half. Needing just three plays, O'Malley found Taylor in the corner of the end zone for a 33-yard reception to send the Bruins into the break feeling good about themselves, leading by 15 points.
"It was a hard-fought game and we played a very-good Andover team," said Bruins coach Jarrett Shine. "It was a battle the entire time. Billy O'Malley is a leader for us and his future is very bright. Our kids have nothing to hang their heads about. Andover was able to move the ball well on the ground and we just didn't wrap up and make tackles. We also had a couple of blown coverages late which also hurt us."