By Marc Silvestrini, Mirror Correspondent
WINDSOR — Windsor’s defense registered the first big blow of Wednesday night’s clash of unbeaten powerhouses, but Middletown’s defense scored the knockout, yielding no offensive points, five first downs and 91 yards of total offense in a convincing 24-7 win at windy Jack O’Brien Stadium.
The win, Middletown’s first over Windsor since 2013 and coach Sal Morello’s second in seven encounters with the Warriors, concluded a perfect 10-0 regular season for the Blue Dragons and virtually assures them of the top seed in the Class L state playoffs. They will have a home quarterfinal game on Tuesday against a to-be-determined opponent.
The victory also provided Middletown’s football program with its first undefeated regular season since 1985 — a follow-up to the 1984 legacy team’s unbeaten, state championship season in the first year of the merger of the city’s two (Middletown and Woodrow Wilson) public high schools.
Middletown secured the No. 1 seed in Class L and will play host to four-time defending state champion New Canaan in the quarterfinals. Kickoff is Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.
The Blue Dragons spotted the Warriors (9-1) a quick 7-0 lead when Joe Russell picked off an errant pass by Blue Dragons quarterback Stone Belzo and raced 18 yards to the end zone on the game’s third play. But from there, Belzo and the Middletown offense reeled off 24 unanswered points while the MHS defense pitched a shutout, allowing the Warriors offense to cross midfield but once the entire game.
“Their defense is good, real good,” Windsor coach Rob Fleeting said. “Actually, they’re pretty good on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. They’re a really well-balanced football team.”
Morello also praised his defense, calling the unit “the big reason why we won the game.” He also had high praise for his offensive line, which enabled the Dragons to control the football for huge chunks of game time, a trend underscored by Middletown’s 67-38 edge in offensive plays.
Morello also was effusive in his praise of Belzo. His senior quarterback overcame what could have been a catastrophic early-game mistake to engineer his team’s 10th straight win.
“The kid is just a gamer,” he said of Belzo. “He’s mentally tough. He doesn’t quit or get down on himself. He’s just a great leader.”
Belzo atoned for the interception by finishing an eight-play, 41-yard drive midway through the second quarter with an 11-yard run burst to the right of center behind the blocking of center Cam Barrett, guard Osbourne Richards and tackle Max Cyr. Mike Aresco’s extra point knotted the game at 7.
Belzo scored again with 24 seconds left in the half on a 2-yard dive to put the Dragons up for good at 14-7. The touchdown was set up by a key third-down completion from Belzo to DeAaron Lawrence that brought the Dragons to the 2 with 29 seconds to go in the half.
An interception of Windsor quarterback Julian Jackson by Ahmir Brackett-White set up a 28-yard Aresco field goal — his career 23rd, adding to his state record — midway through the third quarter that upped the Dragon lead to 17-7. But Windsor — which was held to 24 yards of total offense and one first down in the first half — wasn’t quite ready to call it an evening.
Down by 10 with just over six minutes to play in the third quarter, the Warriors launched their best drive of the game following Aresco’s field goal, marching 59 yards in 11 plays to the Dragons’ 6-yard-line, where they faced a critical fourth-and-2.
But Warriors tailback Tomasz Johnson was stopped for no gain by Camryn Wynn and Richards on the ensuing play and Belzo responded by capping what amounted to a 94-yard drive with a 9-yard strike to a diving Lawrence in the end zone to push the MHS lead to 24-7 with just over six minutes left in the game.
The long touchdown drive took more than nine minutes off the clock. It was greatly aided by a towering, 49-yard Aresco punt that was fumbled deep in Warriors territory and recovered by DaJuan Sowatey Lomotey at the Windsor 6-yard-line, enabling the Blue Dragons to maintain possession.
Belzo finished the game completing 11 of 16 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, and rushing for an additional 47 yards and two scores.
Not a bad ending to a game that didn’t start off all that well.
“Coach Morello is always saying that you have to remain strong, you have to keep fighting and keep playing hard when things go wrong, and that’s what I tried to do (after the interception),” Belzo said. “You can’t let it bother you and take you out of your game. You can’t just fall into a hole.”
Xzavier Reyes rushed for 99 tough yards on 29 carries for Middletown, while Nico Cavaliere caught five of Belzo’s throws for 48 yards and had an interception.
Aresco, on a chilly, blustery night, no less, also was 3-for-3 with his extra-point tries and punted twice for a 48-yard average.