In a game that featured 41 first-quarter points, it was actually the Iona Prep (2-0) defense that made the biggest difference.
Michael Sullivan forced and recovered a fumble with six minutes remaining as the Gaels hung on to beat St. Anthony’s (0-2) for the first time since the 2008 CHSFL AAA championship game, 30-28. It’s the first 0-2 start for the Friars in well over a decade.
“The turnovers were huge, that’s what the game comes down to,” Sullivan, a junior linebacker, said. “When you’re playing an awesome team like St. Anthony’s, that’s what it comes down to.”
Besides turning St. Anthony’s over, Iona’s defense was flat out better in the second half. The Friars had 250 yards of offense in the first half, but Iona held them to just 27 yards in the second half and zero offensive points over the final three quarters.
“We figured out what we had to do a little bit, but it was mostly about tackling,” Sullivan said. “We just came together and wrapped up ball carriers better in the second half.”
The game started with fireworks for both teams. Neither team punted through the first quarter and both offenses scored at will early on. Anthony Anderson scored from 18 yards out on the Friars’ first drive and Iona answered back three plays later. Mario Biaggi started the game with a 46-yard pass to Chris Cooper before the senior quarterback carried the ball twice to get into the end zone.
After a big return, sophomore Jordan Gowins scored a 32-yard touchdown to give St. Anthony’s a 14-6 lead. The Friars recovered the ensuing pooch kick at the Iona 34-yard line giving St. Anthony’s complete control.
Enter Chris Cooper.
One of the few two-way players playing at this level, Cooper snatched a pass out of the air from Dom Calisto and took it 80 yards the other direction for a touchdown. Cooper added five catches on offense for 102 yards.
It was the ground attack of Iona Prep that really controlled the game, however. St. Anthony’s led 21-13 in the middle of the first quarter when the Gaels went to work on the ground. Iona drove 77 yards on 12 plays to close the gap once again to just one point after a 1-yard touchdown run from Nick D’Angelo. The bulk of the work on the drive was done by Biaggi (27 carries, 162 yards, one TD) and Shaquille Townsend (22 carries, 119 yards, one TD).
“Everyone thinks we’re a passing team because we’re fast-paced spread, but coach stresses running the ball,” Biaggi said. “Everything else opens up after that.”
Iona trailed 21-20 at halftime (after a scoreless second quarter), and opened the half with the ball.
Much like the first half, Iona’s offense moved the ball easily. The Gaels faced a third-and-10 on the drive but Biaggi hit Chris Cooper for a 20-yard gain to move the chains. Biaggi and Townsend ran the ball down the field and Townsend capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run to give Iona its first lead of the game.
The Gaels opened up the game’s first two-possession lead after another double digit-play drive. The drive stalled inside the 5-yard line, but Christian Kapp booted a 21-yard field goal for the 30-21 lead.
The Friars’ Brendan Femiano returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown. For St. Anthony’s, Gowins finished with six carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Anderson added 52 yards on 13 carries and a score, and Naim Jones contributed 41 yards on eight carries.
Iona’s defense never let them get loose in the second half though.
“That was the defense stepping up for us, that’s what they do,” Biaggi said. “I was watching from the sideline and it was just amazing the way they turned that around. It’s just amazing.”
Email John Malone at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MSGV_Malone