STRATFORD — For the first 24 minutes, it was all working.
Dario Highsmith and Isaiah Thompkins were moving the ball on the ground. The Middletown defense didn’t give an inch. And in its first playoff game since 2007, Middletown cruised into halftime with a 14-0 lead.
But it didn’t last.
Masuk turned to senior backs Tom Milone and Frank Bacarella in the second half, stuffed the backfield in a full-house running formation and scored 21 unanswered points in a comeback win in the Class L quarterfinals against Middletown Wednesday at Bunnell High School, 21-14.
“We self-destructed,” Middletown coach Sal Morello said. “Not to take anything away from Masuk — they took advantage.”
Masuk, Class L champion in 2010, advances to a Sunday semifinal with unbeaten Daniel Hand, which defeat Platt 55-26 in its quarterfinal Wednesday.
Trailing by two scores, Masuk quarterback Malik Cummings led a 52-yard drive with 6 minutes left in the third quarter that ended in a one-yard touchdown run by Joseph DaMota.
Middletown went three and out on its next possession, then Masuk drove again (sparked by a 44-yard run from Milone) and found paydirt on a four-yard run by Bacarello.
Masuk missed the extra point, but pulled within one point as the third quarter ended at 14-13.
The teams buckled down for the first 8 minutes of the fourth quarter before Middletown penalties helped Masuk prolong a late drive.
First, an incidental facemask gave the Panthers five yards. Then, on fourth down and six in the red zone, the Blue Dragon defense had a false start. The penalty pushed Masuk to the two-yard line, where DaMota punched in his second rushing touchdown of the night.
Milone ran in the two-point conversion, and Masuk led 21-14 with three minutes left.
Middletown turned the ball over on downs as the clock wound below 2 minutes, and the Masuk offense kept the ball on the ground until the final buzzer sounded.
“We didn’t panic,” Masuk coach John Murphy said. “We thought we were in pretty good shape at halftime, even though we were down 14. We made some mistakes, but we knew if we cleaned up those little things we’d be in good shape.”
“We didn’t play a good second half,” Morello said. “We didn’t put them away. You’ve got to play all 48 minutes.”