EAST HARTFORD -- So this is what it feels like.

Over the past half-decade, when New Canaan was routing opponents with its new-look spread offense, no matter the stakes of the game, this was how those opponents were feeling.

It was helplessness paired with continual determination overshadowed by the ever-increasing, annoying existence of doubt and acceptance of the inevitable: they were going to lose the game.

The four-year state-title-winning streak failed to ferment into five Saturday night at Rentschler Field, as New Canaan got handled, 50-20, by top-seeded Masuk.

"Right now, I feel like I got hit over the head with a sledgehammer," Rams head coach Lou Marinelli said. "I'm a little disappointed in the way we kept giving them field position and kept giving them penalties, one right after the other. But I'm proud of the way the kids hung in there. There was no give up, no quit in them."

Hey, it had to end some year, and the fact Marinelli got his program to win four consecutive Class L titles is rarefied air in and of itself. Take a second and think about the accomplishment.

Simply incredible.

Is there a better-pedigreed football program in the state? No.

But Masuk was clearly the better team Saturday night and from opening to end this season. Saturday night, the Rams were forced to stare into the mirror at what dozens of other teams saw in recent years. Going forward, the players who will be back with this team in 2011 will likely keep that vision in the front of their minds as a motivating image.

Back to 50-20. Strength is the word that comes to mind. It wasn't the Panthers' speed, quarterback play, defensive scheme or diverse running game. No, they were too strong, never relenting over the course of 48 minutes. New Canaan's three touchdowns came from 14 yards or longer and were speed-designed strikes.

When the Rams weren't getting yardage off their speed, they weren't slowed -- they were stopped. And the penalties came at the worst of times, too.

"We shot ourselves in the foot with penalties," Rams junior quarterback Matt Milano said.

The ledger was fairly balanced, though. While New Canaan had 10 no-nos for 85 yards, Masuk committed eight penalties that totaled 95 yards.

In the beginning there was some adjusting, but soon enough, according to Marinelli, Masuk's speed wasn't an issue.

"[Their offense] was much faster than what we try to duplicate in practice," Marinelli said. "They're quick, they came at us, and I thought we were able to overcome in the beginning."

Specifically, on this night, far too many three-and-outs for Marinelli's team became the real problem, the one that was more obstructing of winning the game than the flag-pulling. New Canaan hadn't punted eight times in a game all season. They did against the Panthers. But Masuk has a way of doing that: making teams do things they otherwise normally wouldn't.

"If you can't keep the ball, they're going to kill you," Marinelli said.

After the Panthers broke open the lead to 23-7, many thought it was going to be another route; Masuk hadn't played a tight half, let alone full game, in 2010.

The Rams were too proud to make it that decisive, however. And heading into the half, the game 23-20, Masuk leading, there was drama and, thankfully, doubt about the outcome.

The most critical three-and-out of the game, however, came on the first drive of the third quarter, when the Rams got the ball and had a chance to give the game its first lead change. The possession ended with a 22-yard Joe Costigan punt.

"I really believe, had we come out on that first drive and were able to do something, it would have been a different game," Marinelli said. "Very uncharacteristically, the penalties we had, some of the drops we had ... when you play a good team, they're not practicing all week to make you look good."

New Canaan scored all of its points in the second quarter; it accrued 282 of its 311 in the first half. Masuk decided to end all talk of an upset in the opening minutes of the third quarter. It was sobering, but hey, this is high school football, and elite teams don't wait until the fourth quarter to keep it interesting.

"We sent every blitz known to man trying to get to him," Marinelli said of Masuk junior quarterback Casey Cochran, who was 22 for 32 for 309 yards and three touchdowns. Worth mentioning: Cochran was pressured a handful of times, though he was never sacked.

Afterward, the team didn't have its usual talk out on the field. It trotted back to the bowels of Rentschler and undressed in the locker room, the big one that's used by Division I football teams.

The CIAC is starting a terrific new tradition by having the state title games at Rentschler. For most who will never experience playing at a D-I stadium, the experience alone must be pretty memorable -- win or lose.

Before the team could meet, sob, reflect and talk as a group, Milano, Kevin Macari and Conor Hanratty joined their head coach for a briefing with the media in the press room. God bless those boys; they aren't used to losing, and they got the college and pro treatment by being forced to talk with the press after the toughest loss of their lives.

Macari sat, stirring, wearing an old-school-styled NBA hat, the brim as low as he could push it.

"We had a great season and everything we did was historic, and whatever you want to call, but at the end of your season you don't have a ring on your finger," Macari said. "It doesn't matter."

Hanratty had his Monster brand headphones wrapped around his thick neck, the sweat from his hair still falling onto the headphones and his shirt. Macari and Hanratty, the seniors, were welled up with emotion and tears. You could've been tricked into thinking they were never playing an organized game of football game. Fortunately, both will have careers at the next level.

"We had a really great season, but in a time like this it just seems like none of it matters," Hanratty said.

Macari -- who wore No. 9 in honor of Jimmy Joe Granito, the New Canaan senior who sat out with injury in the past month -- got two big-strike scores, touchdown catches of 35 and 67 yards.

"They played two people on me, and they didn't let me get by them," Macari said. "If it means hold, it means hold. It's the same thing that's been happening all year."

This is where I let you know Macari finished with 10 catches for 197 yards. A hell of a finale to an ever-ascending high school career. If he was getting held as much as he said he was, imagine the numbers he could've racked up.

Milano was dressed as casually as could be, his hair parted into a funny shape because of the helmet being on his head the three previous hours. The only one of the three who still has a future in a Rams uniform, the junior quarterback's tone was half disappointment, half self-motivation.

"We didn't respond," Milano said. "We gave [this game] away."

The string of talented quarterbacks that have come through the high school in the past decade has been remarkable. But if the Rams had to lose this year, Milano was the guy to do it with. He'll be ready come next season. Heck, he's probably ready now. He smashed a horde of records this season and is mature beyond his age.

This team will be back in this game soon enough. And multi-year championship streaks should come again as long as Marinelli is running the show.

The program's too good, on too-fertile ground, to not continue making runs inside the conference borders and state lines.