In the grand scheme of things, the whole point of News No. 1 Small School Bennett and No. 2 Large School Orchard Park facing each other in a nonleague contest was for both football teams with championship aspirations to fortify for long playoff runs.
Both teams can honestly say they are better for having played each other. But after an entertaining first half that nearly ended in a stalemate, OP showed the Tigers why it is one of the best programs in the state.
The Quakers (3-0) pulled away for a 27-16 Homecoming Day win at Quaker Field. An Orchard Park crew that has more linemen weighing in the neighborhood of 200 pounds dominated the line of scrimmage against Bennett counterparts that had a nearly 100-pound edge on them upfront.
It didn’t matter. OP gashed the Tigers for 5.2 yards per carry as the ground game jump-started the usually pass-happy offense. Ryan Paolini rushed for a game-high 107 yards, including the game-clinching 33-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter as the Quakers finished with 202 yards rushing and 310 in offense. He also rushed for a 3-yard score during OP’s first second-half possession.
“Our coaches did a great job making formations they knew would work against them and we just played them tough,” said Paolini. “This shows our line can handle anyone who comes at us.”
While the unit of Brandon Parker, Dan Kubik, Bret Morseon, Tim Darling and Tyler Tanevski seized control on offense, a defense led by middle linebacker Ronnie Shul (22 tackles) shut down Bennett’s vaunted running game, limiting Syracuse-commit Isaiah McDuffie to 87 yards on 14 carries. The Tigers finished with just 108 rushing yards, as OP dared them to make plays in the passing game.
They did late but by then the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Quakers picked off three passes.
Players of the game: Paolini on offense, and OP’s defense as a unit for taking Bennett (2-1) to the woodshed.
Defense, defense: Coach Gene Tundo and his staff quickly switched to a 52 defense and that look allowed the Quakers to take away the outside running edges, forcing Bennett to run inside. While Bennett finished with 282 yards in offense, the last 80 came with the game no longer in doubt.
Interceptions by Corey Mcpoland[cq] and Josh Dahl also led to touchdowns by OP. Mcpoland’s late third-quarter pick gave the Quakers a drive start at Bennett’s 30. On the next play, quarterback Dillon Janca and Joe Losardo hooked up for the 30-yard TD that made it 21-0 with 10:38 left. Dahl’s pick set up Paolini’s clinching touchdown.
Play of the game: Kevin Koziol’s leaping interception in the back of the end zone to end a potential scoring drive by the Tigers late in the first half. OP had just taken a 6-0 lead on its possession prior to that drive. If Bennett scores there, it changes the complexion of the game in a big way as Tigers players go into halftime feeling good about themselves, instead of being a bit frustrated.
“We knew they were going to throw it up. The plan all week was to stay deep,” Koziol said.
Play of first half: A 13-yard pass from Janca to Chris Liberatore on third-and-9 from the Bennett 44 on OP’s lone scoring drive of the half. It was wide receiver screen in which he cut inside after making the catch and had plenty of daylight to pick up the first down. Until that point, the Quakers’ passing game had been quiet. The drive ended with a Liberatore’s 6-yard TD catch with 3:23 left in the half.
Quotable: “Even though they’re a Class C team, they play like a AA team. They’re well-coach and have a great offense,” Shul said of Bennett. “They’re a really good football team. We handled our business.”
Quotable II: "They played us physical the whole game," Paolini said. "We just made the plays at the right time, getting the best of them,"
Tigers tamed: “We were really surprised they ran the ball that much. We didn’t think they were going to be able to run the ball against us. We thought they were going to throw against us,” Bennett coach Steve McDuffie said. “We learned that we have to shore up our linebacking crew a little more. … But you know what, we still feel good.”
Stats: Dahl rushed 16 times for 93 yards for OP, while Janca completed 11-of-20 passes for 108 yards, two TDs and two picks. Anthony Mendrysa went 16 for 26 for 174 yards passing with a TD to lead Bennett.
Crowd: An estimated 3,000 showed up for the nonleague contest, which featured a pregame carnival with rides, games and food for fans of all ages.
Next week: Bennett plays host to JFK on Friday night at 7 at All High Stadium in a Class C North battle. Meanwhile Orchard Park will play another former member of the Harvard Cup in Class AA South rival Hutch-Tech. Game time is 4 p.m. Saturday at All High Stadium.
Chow report: A slice of pizza and a hamburger from OP concession stand made for tasty lunch. Add in a good conversation with Prep Talk Award Hall of Famer Dick Gallagher … Grade: A.