Photo: Belmont RB Ben Jones runs through a wide opening in the line to score late in the fourth quarter against Watertown.
In what will be remembered as an epic Thanksgiving Day clash, Belmont’s bid for a memorable upset of arch rivals and host Watertown was derailed by the foot of sophomore Conor Kennelly as the Raiders’ kicker hit a field goal from 35 yards out with 56 seconds remaining to give Watertown a 24-22 victory over the Mauraders on Thursday, Nov. 26 at Victory Field.
“We played a great football game, all aspects of it. Our coaches did a tremendous job, planning it up for them. I was really proud of the effort we put forth in this game,” said Belmont Head Coach Yann Kuman, who fought off his emotions to reach out to his players.
“I hope that we sent a message to people in general that Belmont football is on the rise and Belmont football is here to stay. Get ready for us because we’re going to lick our wounds and in a month we will be back in the weight room getting ready for 2016,” said Kuman.
Calling his team’s performance Thursday, “the season’s most complete game from both sides of ball,” Kuman said the players and coaches stayed with the plans mapped out in the past two weeks in preparation for Watertown’s rushing attack and strong defensive line
“We stuck with [our plan] even though we had some execution problems in the first quarter of defense, we didn’t abandon what we practiced and prepared for,” Kuman said.
But for the fourth time in time this season, Belmont could not find a way to score or hold the lead at the end of the game.
“We have to be like the experience teams and know how to close out a game,” said Kuman.
One of Belmont’s season-long bugaboos raised its head once again as Watertown quickly marched down the field – aided by four offsides penalties against the Marauders – towards a go-ahead score. But Belmont’s interior defensive line spearheaded by senior Justin Aroyan and stopped Watertown’s running game inside the 5-yard line.
“The guys did a lot of work this week, and the coaches put in a lot of hours on the grease board and we came up with a good package,” said Kuman.
“We had faith in the guys in doing the job, and they did it,” he said.,
On his first passing attempt, Watertown junior QB Deon Smith threw the ball into the arms of junior Marauder defensive back Kevin Martin in the end zone at 4:43 in the first quarter.
After gaining a first down, Belmont’s drive stalled and on the subsequent punt attempt, the ball sailed over punter Aidan Cadogan’s head. When all was said and done, Watertown had the ball on the Marauders’ 19 when on their first play, Watertown’s Smith juked down the right side 19 yards for the opening touchdown with 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
After the kickoff, Belmont kept the ball for nearly eight minutes, mixing short runs by senior Mehki Johnson – which Watertown successfully bottled up for most of the game – and junior Ben Jones and passing by junior QB Cal Christofori to senior WR Justin Wagner (including a six-yard pickup on fourth down and four yards at the 18 yard line) culminating in Christofori finding senior WR Joe Shaughnessy on a seven-yard slant for the game-tying touchdown at 4:07 to the half.
Watertown quickly went downfield – helped by a Smith 30-yard run – finishing with senior running back Kyle Foley scoring on a 7-yard run with 41 seconds left.
But that was enough time for Christofori to complete three passes and for Johnson to break a 30 yard gain that allowed Cadogan to hit a line-drive field goal with three seconds remaining to cut the halftime lead to 14-10.
Watertown caught a break when the third quarter pooch kickoff eluded Belmont’s return team, and the Raiders recovered the ball on the Belmont 22. A few plays later, the score was 21-10 as Foley ran the ball in from 2 yards out early in the third.
But Belmont would not fold, coming out with a masterpiece of a drive,a 19 play, 11-minute possession (including a 15-yard roughing the passing personal foul on the Raiders) in which Belmont, behind the ever-improving offensive line – sophomores Dennis Crowley and Ryan Noone along with seniors Chris Piccione, Lowell Haska and Aroyan – and the bruising blocking from sophomore fullback Adam Deese saw Jones and Johnson eat up yards while Christofori connected with his favorite target Wagner.
The Marauders took the ball 81 yards where Johnson busted through for his 22nd touchdown of the season to shrink the lead to 21-16 with 9-minutes remaining. While it appeared Johnson had scored on the two-point conversion, the referees said the Belmont runner’s knee had first hit the ground.
A good kickoff return by Watertown was negated by a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and Belmont’s defense stuffed the Raiders on three consecutive plays. On fourth down, Wagner used his basketball reach to block the Watertown punt, and Belmont recovered the ball on the Raiders 10-yard line. Two plays later, Jones scored on a 4-yard run with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving Belmont a 22-21 lead after missing the two-point conversion.
Watertown had the ball on the Belmont 45 and nearly lost the ball on a fumble and a near interception. On fourth down and 4 yards at the 38, Smith’s pass was a poor one, and Belmont took over on downs with 3:56 to play and up by a point.
A Christofori sprint pass to Wagner and Deese run gave Belmont a first and ten at its 48-yard line with 2:56 remaining. It appeared Belmont had sealed the upset when Johnson sprinted to the Raiders 20-yard line with 2:39 left, but the Marauders were penalized for holding. Belmont punted with 1:39 left giving the Raiders the ball on its 19.
Some hard running by Smith and a timely pass to senior Tyler Poulin coupled with two near interceptions by Belmont where Watertown receivers had to play “defense” gave Kennelly the opportunity to play the hero of the day.
Watertown now leads the yearly contest 46-43-5.
Players and coaches were resolute in defeat, showing their disappointment but also congratulating each other for the season they completed.
“The big statement of this game would have been winning it. But we’re proud of what we accomplished. This was a program with one win in two seasons, and now we’ve won seven in two [years] and competitive in all but two games this season,” Kuman said.
“The only emotion I have right now is pride. I’m proud how the kids played this year, how the coaches led the players. We’re proud where we are and really proud of what we did,” he said.