STONINGTON — If Stonington High expects to beat Westerly High in Thursday’s game, it must find a way to match the Bulldogs’ physical play.
Teams that have done that this season have been able to play with the Bulldogs. Most have been unsuccessful. Westerly comes into the game with an 8-2 record.
The annual Thanksgiving Day game kicks off at 10 a.m. at Westerly’s Augeri Field.
“Obviously, they are very, very physical,” Stonington coach A.J. Massengale said. “If you don’t get them in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage and they get momentum going, it’s going to create some problems.
“You have to survive them. You have to force them to drive and survive those drives.”
Offensively, Westerly averages 380 yards rushing and 45.4 points per game.
Burrillville and Woonsocket, the two teams that beat the Bulldogs, employed defenses with 10 or 11 players within two yards of the ball against the run-heavy single-wing offense. Westerly runs the ball about 95 percent of the time.
But Massengale know it’s much more than a scheme that makes the difference.
“You can have the greatest scheme in the world, but you have to have the personnel to pull it off,” Massengale said. “Our kids battle and it’s a challenge. We have to find out what works best and do that.”
Tristan Turano leads the Bulldogs with 1,604 rushing yards and an average of 9.5 per carry. He has scored 30 touchdowns. Jalen Valentin is next with 764 yards at 8.4 per carry. He has 10 TDs.
“We are going to have everything on the table in the way we defend,” Massengale said. “We can’t let the game get away from us because it would be hard to get it back.”
Stonington (1-8) has 49 players on its roster, 34 of them are either sophomores or freshmen. The inexperienced Bears have been hurt by penalties and turnovers, sometimes at the worst possible moments. Three of Stonington’s losses are by a combined 15 points.
Stonington also hurt itself in last year’s Thanksgiving game with far too many penalties. The Bears were flagged 15 times for 153 yards, including six personal fouls and one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“Penalties were huge in last year’s game, and that can’t happen again. We have to play a clean game,” Massengale said. “We can’t turn it over, and we can’t have penalties that haunt you.
“I would say that every year, but this year especially, we are not in a position where we can weather the storm of mistakes like that.”
Nate Miller leads the Bears in rushing with 518 yards averaging 4.1 per carry. Riley Burnside has rushed for 275 yards and caught 12 passes for 68 yards.
Both players also excel on defense.
While Westerly’s offense has received much attention during the season, Massengale said its defense is also very good. Westerly has six shutouts.
“They are very aggressive and very physical. They have great linebacker play,” Massengale said. “They swarm to the ball, and they play downhill. You must have great execution against a team like that. If you don’t, they will run you over.”
Given the records of both teams and how the seasons have unfolded, most would consider the Bulldogs a prohibitive favorite to win.
“I am sure the kids are hearing that a lot,” Massengale said. “It’s a lot easier for people to say that. That’s definitely in their world. I don’t hear that stuff. But that is not how we are approaching it. Our mindset is we are going to do the things that put us in the best position to win the game.”