At this time of the year, many college and high school football teams compete against traditional Thanksgiving opponents. We call them rivalry games, contests that are played for “bragging rights” and even, in rare cases, for league championships.
The advent of playoffs has diminished these games over the years. In college ball, radical reformers want to take it one step farther, creating a national championship for Division I teams that would completely dilute the meaning of bowl games while also extending the season deep into January or even into the first weekend of February.
The radicals have been losing this power struggle with the traditionalists, college executives who realize there’s a lot of money to be made from bowl games. The traditionalist doesn’t want to kill the golden goose by adding two more games on to the end of an already elongated (and bloated) bowl season. That’s why we still don’t have a true national championship college playoff on the field. Too many schools and bowls and TV networks are making too much money off the current system to risk diluting the final product.
In high school ball, if you buy the idea that Thanksgiving games are bowl games for the players, then you must appreciate that these holiday contests have also been diluted by the playoffs. Unless one of the participating teams in a Thanksgiving game needs to qualify for the playoffs, there is very little meaning to these Thanksgiving games. Or if there is meaning, it’s only for one team. No wonder high school crowds for Thanksgiving games have diminished over the years.
We saw several scenarios play out this week in Thanksgiving games that fell somewhat short of all-out competition between two teams.
In the first scenario, we had games where one team was in the playoffs and the other was out. That created an emotional edge for the underdog. We saw this occur in Shea’s 14-7 win over unbeaten Division II-B champion Tolman. Both teams played hard and wanted to win but the Raiders were desperate for victory while the Tigers could be forgiven for looking at the big picture and saving something for the next round of the playoffs.
Same thing happened in St. Raphael’s 30-6 loss to Johnston. This one also had a subplot of payback for the Panthers because the Saints had knocked them out of the playoffs two weeks earlier. Revenge is a dish best served cold. That’s what the Panthers served up at McCoy Stadium to a Saints team that can’t wait to play Tolman on Tuesday night in the Division II semifinals.
Two more of these “underdog” games ended in contrasting fashion. Cumberland could hold its collective heads held high after playing powerful Woonsocket to a near standstill for three quarters. The Clippers’ defense held Woonsocket to an unbelievably low total of 64 yards in total offense. Of course, the Novans’ defense made victory possible by posting its sixth shutout of the season in a 14-0 win, seven of the points coming thanks to Pepe Torres’s 70-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.
North Smithfield, heading to the first playoffs in school football history, played with a lot of purpose and emotion during a 44-6 rout of hapless Scituate. The Northmen are probably a special case because they are on a historic mission this year. Coach Wes Pennington and his staff have turned a losing program around. The players are loving every minute of their new-found prosperity. This attitude makes them a very dangerous underdog heading into Tuesday’s playoff game at Exeter/West Greenwich.
East Providence had a little bit to play for against La Salle, knowing a victory would send it on the road to second-seeded Portsmouth in the Division I playoffs while a loss would place the Townies at the home field of unbeaten Hendricken on Tuesday night. The Townies lost a 14-7 verdict to a desperate La Salle team that stood on the verge of missing the state playoffs for the first time in 11 years.
Nobody’s saying that these playoff-bound teams didn’t try their best to win. But any football coach will tell you that emotion plays a large role in the outcome of games. Emotionally “flat” teams usually don’t prevail against an evenly-matched opponent.
You’ve got to be pretty good to win when the emotional advantage rests with the other team. That happened on Wednesday night when Division III playoff semifinalist Lincoln edged Division IV Central Falls, which played gallantly in a 27-20 season-ending loss to the Lions, who will face Moses Brown in Tuesday’s semifinals.
And then there’s the case of Burrillville, a team that should have made the Division III playoffs, but fell victim to Murphy’s Law. The Broncos wrapped up a 7-4 season with an impressive 21-0 win over a solid Ponaganset squad. Burrillville lost 4 games by a combined 11 points this season. The Broncos were beset by injuries that cost them the services of at least two key players for long stretches. They also understand injuries are part of the game and cannot be controlled or eliminated just to make things fair.
Knowing they had one last chance to do something good for themselves, the Broncos came out on Thursday morning and played nearly a perfect game against the Chieftains, sending their seniors off with a sweet taste in their mouths. In a sense, this was Burrillville’s playoff game.
The playoffs still remain the No. 1 goal for every high school team, and this is as it should be. Three nights from now, nobody will have an emotional edge. Each team will either win or go home. The winners advance to the Holy Grail of football – the Super Bowl – next weekend. That’s where champions are crowned. On the field. Nothing wrong with that.