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Victory Bell: Cardinals Win, Ring Up a Trip to State Final

  • The Stevens Cardinals celebrate their 13 - 0 division III semifinal win over Epping - Newmarket in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    The Stevens Cardinals celebrate their 13 - 0 division III semifinal win over Epping - Newmarket in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donald Pellerin of Stevens gains ground as his teammate Robbie Knight fends off Joe LeClerc of Epping - Newmarket during their division III semifinal in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013. Stevens won 13 - 0.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Donald Pellerin of Stevens gains ground as his teammate Robbie Knight fends off Joe LeClerc of Epping - Newmarket during their division III semifinal in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013. Stevens won 13 - 0.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Stevens Cardinals celebrate their 13 - 0 division III semifinal win over Epping - Newmarket in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Donald Pellerin of Stevens gains ground as his teammate Robbie Knight fends off Joe LeClerc of Epping - Newmarket during their division III semifinal in Claremont, N.H. Saturday, November 16, 2013. Stevens won 13 - 0.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Claremont — Stevens High defensive tackle Robbie Knight gave Epping-Newmarket quarterback Alex Hackett no time to throw his first pass on Saturday afternoon.

The Blue Devils’ opening play from scrimmage in their NHIAA Division III football semifinal at Barnes Park ended in disaster. Knight crushed Hackett as he released the ball, leaving the E-N signal caller prone in the dirt as Donald Pellerin intercepted the resulting flutterball delivery.

That was the first bell Stevens rang in an eventual 13-0 victory. The Cardinals rang another one time and time again to reach their first state football final since 2005.

With the Blue Devils concentrating their defense on the shifty Pellerin, junior fullback Brandon Bell ran a season-high 18 times for team-best 108 yards as second-ranked Stevens (8-2) employed two early scores and an afternoon of ball-control offense and suffocating defense to good effect.

“Honestly, I didn’t come into the game expecting to get as many (carries) as I did today,” Bell said. “They couldn’t stop the wedge (or) the straight dives. Our boys up front, our line, opened it up every single play.

“I can’t be more proud of what our front line did. They won that game for us, without a doubt.”

On both sides of the ball, too.

The third-ranked Blue Devils (5-5) slowed Pellerin — owner of 1,339 rushing yards entering the game — with a five-man line spread wide to contain his speed. But they were helpless against the simple between-the-tackles assaults of Bell, who recorded his second 100-yard game of the season.

Stevens’ defense, meanwhile, held E-N to just 27 first-half yards and 103 total offensive yards for the day. Of the Blue Devils’ 33 rushing attempts, 15 ended in lost yardage.

“We have a strong core,” Cardinal defensive end Kai Kleyensteuber said. “They really stepped up. They know how to read their blocks and get off their blocks, make the tackle. Which leaves not a lot of work for our linebackers.”

Epping-Newmarket’s first five plays went like this: interception, fumble for loss, run for loss, incompletion, punt. Stevens built its two-touchdown lead on that misfortune.

Pellerin, at cornerback, converted his own turnover to get the Cards on the board, picking off Hackett’s pass at the Epping 42-yard-line and returning it to the 21. Bell raced 13 yards on his first carry, and Pellerin finished the short drive with a 2-yard touchdown dive just 4:50 into the contest.

After another Epping three-and-out, Stevens used a short field to take a 13-0 lead. Bell netted 20 yards on a pair of dives, and Pellerin broke through the visitors’ line for a 20-yard TD with 4:14 left in the quarter. Bryar Rouillard’s point-after kick caught an Epping finger and rang off the left post, the last time the Cards would come close to scoring.

“The farther along you go, the harder it gets,” Stevens coach Paul Silva said. “They gave us fits trying to go outside. We like to get Donald out in space. We were able to do it early in the game, and they made some nice adjustments. But with the game Brandon had …

“I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again: If you can control the line of scrimmage, you’re going to have success. And we were able to control the line, I thought, on both sides of the ball, for the most part.”

Knight, Christian Stone and Noah Ladd filled the middle of the Stevens’ defensive line, with Kleyensteuber and Cody Wirkkala — filling in for suspended starter Nate White — on the ends. Between that quintet and Pellerin and Rouillard on the corners, Epping rarely threatened.

The visitors had five possessions in the first half; aside from the interception, three ended in punts and the fourth died with the halftime horn. Rouillard popped Epping halfback Alex Souvannaseng for an eight-yard option pass attempt to end one drive. Linebacker Collin Belt joined Ladd and Knight in killing another possession with two runs for loss and an incompletion.

Stevens had the Blue Devils so bamboozled that they seemed happy to let the clock run out the first half rather than attempt a last-minute drive.

“I think their scheme up front was a little different than what we prepared for,” Epping-Newmarket coach Ross Salovitch said. “It looks somewhat like a straight five, but they shifted to our tight end. … (Ladd) is one hell of a football player. He was beating the double-team and making plays in the backfield.”

The Blue Devils had more success advancing the ball in the second half, twice marching into the Stevens red zone. The Cardinals stood firm both times.

Hackett moved E-N from its own 32 deep into Stevens territory to open the third quarter. The march fizzled with two more negative-yardage runs and died when Stone and Pellerin pinched Souvannaseng on a one-yard run on fourth-and-4.

A 23-yard Souvannaseng punt return midway through the fourth period gave the Blue Devils one last shot at a score from the Stevens 23. Hackett took two shots at the end zone: A heavy pass rush led to a throwaway on the first, and safety Austin Tenney wrapped up wideout Kyle Cawley on the second, a fade route toward the right pylon that turned into a harmless incompletion.

Stevens took the ball back at its own 14 with 7:37 to play. E-N never saw it again as Rouillard quarterbacked 13 straight rushing plays between himself, Bell and Pellerin to end the contest.

“They had several weapons that we were prepared for,” Salovitch said. “I’ll be straight-up with you right now: Fullback dive wasn’t one of my concerns. That put the game away for them today.”

Like ringing a bell.

Audibles: Epping-Newmarket held Pellerin to a season-low 52 yards on 18 carries. … As a team, the Blue Devils managed just 80 yards on 33 attempts, an average of just 2.42 yards per carry. Senior Joe LeClerc, who ran for 169 yards in E-N’s D-III East defeat of Bishop Brady last week, was limited to 27 yards on 16 rushes on Saturday (1.69 yards per carry). … Between the tackle-to-tackle running and relatively few penalties, the game took just an hour and 50 minutes to complete. … Stevens will visit Bow in Saturday’s D-III championship. The top-seeded Falcons drubbed No. 4 InterLakes-Moultonborough, 42-0, in the day’s other semifinal. … Stevens is seeking its first state football crown since the Kennedy administration (1962) and the school’s first championship in any sport since 1989, when boys soccer claimed the NHIAA Class I title.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.