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Wilmington Snooze-Terminal, November 24, 2008
Champion Cherries’ Rally Stuns Connecticut, 24-20
Hall’s 72-Yard Runback with 11:59 Left Caps Comeback From 17 Points Down
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by Rip Snorter
The Delaware Cherries (13‑3) are 2008 EFL champs!

They claimed the title by coming back from a 17‑0 halftime deficit in the championship game yesterday to stun the Connecticut Comets (8‑8), 24‑20, in front of a delirious packed house at Delaware Stadium.

Delaware Stadium scoreboard shows the 2008 EFL title belongs to the Cherries

Dante Hall returned a Daniel Sepulveda punt 72 yards for the go-ahead score with 11:59 left. The Cherries then fended off two incursions into Delaware territory by the visitors, the first ending with a missed 39-yard field goal attempt by Nate Kaeding and the last thwarted in large measure by a timely Julius Peppers sack. In between John Kasay added a 34-yard field goal for the Cherries.

Rip Snorter

Resilient Cherries Prove Mettle with Dramatic Comeback

After 30 minutes of play, Cherries fans were hanging their heads. The Comets had come ready to play, and the home team appeared listless. The 17‑0 deficit loomed large, and the disappointing prospect of another long off-season was hanging in the air.

Fortunately the Cherries came out in the second half with renewed vigor and sense of purpose. And they started to execute. They put points on the board in all of their second half possessions, save the triumphant Philip Rivers kneel-down that ended the game. The defense allowed the Comets only a field goal.

The result — their 5th EFL title — was, to say the least, very pleasing to the Cherries players, the organization, and the fans. The rally mounted by the Cherries will be long remembered. They proved their mettle when the going got tough, displaying the mark of a champion.

What changed at halftime?

Jon Brams said he reminded the players during the break how they put up 41 points against these same Comets on this same field just a month ago. “There was no way they were going to be able to keep us shut down. I told the guys we were receiving the [second half] kickoff and we needed to take it down and score. Do that and keep chipping away and we’d be right back in it. All I knew is that we needed to stick with our game plan. There was plenty of time left.”

Brams said he felt pretty calm talking to the players at halftime. “My friend Steve Shilling at Iron City told me: ‘Don’t panic if you get down early.’ So I tried to be pretty matter of fact. The players weren’t hanging their heads. I knew they were capable of coming back.”

The first possessions of the second half for each team would be key. Yamon Figurs returned Nate Keading’s short kickoff 28 yards to the 43 giving the Cherries great field position. 12 plays later Kyle Brady sprang LaDainian Tomlinson for a 2-yard touchdown run around left end to get the Cherries on the scoreboard.

Connecticut responded with an efficient drive that took them inside the Delaware 5. The Cherries’ defense did not seem to have an answer for Tom Brady. But then Ray Lewis made his only tackle of the whole game a huge one: On 3rd and 2 at the 3 he bowled over Brett Romberg, who started at right guard in place of the injured Stephen Neal, and brought down Willis McGahee in the backfied for a one-yard loss. “Yeah, man, that was a big-time play,” recalled Lewis. “About time we stopped [the Comets’ offense]!”

The Comets settled for a 21-yard Kaeding field goal and a 20‑7 lead. Had Connecticut been able to punch it into the end zone at that point, the Cherries would have been back in the 17-point hole they had been in at halftime, with 11 fewer minutes in which to mount a comeback. The odds would have been significantly more daunting.

Brams recalled he really started to feel it — that the Cherries would sustain the rally — during the ensuing Delaware possession. Rivers hit a pair of passes for first downs, 20 yards to Heath Miller and then 14 to Isaac Bruce. “Alright, Philip’s getting into the zone. If we can get this [deficit] down to 6, we’re gonna come all the way back.”

On the last play of the third quarter, Rivers found Bruce on the right sideline for 14 more yards to the Comets 5. Three plays later Michael Turner wriggled away from Gibril Wilson and ran to the left pylon to make it 20‑14.

What of Rivers’ metamorphosis, I asked Brams. In the first half Rivers completed 6 of 15 passes for a measly 29 yards.

“Philip’s a tough guy. At halftime we went over some adjustments we thought he could make. But mostly we told him if he kept plugging away good things would start to happen.”

And they did.

Did Brams think about benching Rivers for the second half in favor of backup Aaron Rodgers? Some fans were making their preference for that known. Did Brams hear them?

“Yeah, I heard [the fans], and yeah, I thought about [sending in Rodgers]. I might have considered it if Philip hadn’t looked sharp on that first possession in the second half. But he did [look sharp]. He’s got a lot of confidence, and he’s a great leader.”

Rivers remained sharp throughout the second half, going a sizzling 12-for-13 for 112 yards to finish 17-for-27 for 141 yards. He was methodical, pulling all the right strings, and all the while exhorting his teammates. He said, “We came out in the second half and executed our game plan. We all believe in each other. We hadn’t come this far to fail. That just wasn’t an option.”

After Turner scored, the defense forced the Comets three-and-out for the first and only time. Then it was time for special teams heroics, an aspect of this championship Cherries team that should never be forgotten. Brams: “I saw [Daniel Supulveda’s] punt coming to Dante [Hall] and I said to myself ‘he’s either going to fumble it or he’s going to take it to the house’.”

He did the latter.

Hall sprinted down an alley along the right sideline created by a phalanx of blockers and outran his pursuers to the end zone. The stadium was in an uproar as John Kasay added the conversion to give the Cherries their first lead, a razor-thin 21‑20, with 11:59 left.

There were scary moments from then on, but with the crowd on their feet and roaring almost continuously, the Cherries kept Connecticut off the scoreboard the rest of the way.

When Brams first saw me in the locker room after the game, he jubilantly exclaimed as he gave me the high handshake, “Rip, you called it!” I first thought he was referring to my pre-game prediction of a 28‑20 Cherries win. Indeed, the Cherries came within 2 yards in the waning minutes of upping their lead to that score before the Comets, determined not to go quietly, stiffened and forced a Kasay field goal. I was as shocked as anyone when it looked like I might hit the score on the nose.

Then Brams continued, “Kaeding missed it! You called it!” He was referring to Kaeding’s missed 39-yard field goal with 6:13 remaining, which, if made, would have put the Comets back in front.

In my preview of the championship game, I had speculated that given opposing kickers’ astounding rate of success against the Cherries this season — 31 field goals in 32 attempts coming into the game — maybe the pendulum would swing in the Cherries’ direction just when they needed it most, with a Kaeding miss during crunch time. It actually happened — here again I was as shocked as anyone. Kaeding’s miss may have meant the difference between the championship and an agonizing loss. Had the Cherries fallen behind again, even by just 2, who knows whether they would had the gumption to regain the lead.

The last Cherries voice I give you here is that of Julius Peppers. After an injury-plagued season he was finally back at full strength yesterday and had a very active game. For my money he was the game MVP on the defensive side of the ball. With 1:15 to go, the Comets, needing a touchdown to take the lead, had penetrated Delaware territory. Then on 2nd and 13 at the Delaware 40, Peppers steamed right by Nick Kaczur and flattened Brady for a 12-yard loss. It was Peppers’ second sack of the game. Two incompletions later, the Comets’ last hopes evaporated.

“Everything didn’t always go our way this year on defense,” said Peppers. “But we made stops when we needed to. Same thing today. Brady wasn’t easy to get a hand on so when I had my shots I needed to make sure I got him down.”

To the Cherries faithful: Your enthusiastic support meant a lot to the team this season. Savor this championship. They come along so rarely and then to have it happen in such memorable, dramatic fashion … well, it reminds me of a routine from an old sketch comedy album that used to play often in the Snorter household in my formative years:

A woman in distress moans, “Oh, the agony, oh, the ectasy! Oh, the agony, oh the ectasy!” A bystander rushes in. “What’s wrong? What’s the agony?” “My daughter eloped without a word to me.” “That’s terrible. What’s the ectasy?” “He’s a nice young doctor!”

To update this routine for yesterday — the agony: the Cherries down 17‑0 at the half; the ectasy: the Cherries rallying in the second half to take the title!

Wilmington Snooze-Terminal, November 26, 2008

Thousands Along Parade Route
Hail Delaware’s Champions

Cherries coach Jon Brams shows a copy of Monday's
Snooze-Terminal front page to parade-goers