by Andrew Garda
The Montclair Mounties and their fans breathed a sigh of relief Saturday afternoon, as the Montclair High School football team notched their first win of the season with a 35-0 shutout of the Nutley Raiders at Woodman Field.
If it was a week later than expected, that made it no less satisfying for the Mounties.
Things got off to a fantastic start for Montclair as senior cornerback Tariq Jiles stepped in front of a pass from Raiders quarterback Justin Lucia and returned it for a quick six points.
On the play, the Raiders lined up with two receivers to the quarterback’s right and Jiles picked up Nutley receiver Eli Acosta on the outside, with senior corner Walt King picking up the inside receiver.
“We were in Cover 3,” Jiles explained, referring to a defensive formation which has three defensive backs deep. “I was seven yards deep. I knew they were going to have some type of short route — a hitch or a slant, something like that.”
Jiles knew this because he’d seen it on film the previous week.
As the ball was snapped, Jiles backpedaled about three steps, keeping what looked like a large cushion between himself and Acosta. Lucia looked right and saw what seemed to be a wide-open receiver.
What he didn’t see was Jiles plant his foot and explode towards Acosta the moment the quarterback’s arm cocked back.
As he released the ball, Lucia likely saw Jiles blow through the 10 yards between himself and Acosta, and absolutely saw the Mountie cornerback step in front of the pass, catch the ball and head to the end zone untouched by anyone from Nutley.
A Jacob Manthey extra point later and the Mounties had scored their first touchdown since before halftime of the West Orange loss.
“Tariq — that was a huge play,” said head coach John Fiore. “I think the biggest change with Tariq this week, was that all he had to do was concentrate on defense. And he played lights out corner for us.”
Jiles had an outstanding day, with three passes broken up and a solo tackle in addition to his interception.
In general, the defense played well on a day when they were once again without MHS’ all-time tackle leader, Willie Matthews. They did continue to struggle against the run, and occasionally there were breakdowns in coverage which the Raiders couldn’t take advantage of. Both are items on the coaching staff’s to-do list before the Mounties head to Ohio to face the Massillon Tigers in venerable Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
That said, Fiore was pleased with the effort.
“The defense played lights out. Coach Bittner, Coach Ramiccio, D-Rob [Daniel Roberts], Henry [Wilson] — they did an unbelievable job. [The defense] gave us the opportunity to keep making the mistakes we were making on offense and still find a way to win.”
Several players stepped up to help fill the void left by Matthews, one of which was Jiles.
“Terrell Santana played really big in the middle for us this week. Without Willie Matthews he had to be the leader of that defense,” Fiore said. “And then — you know, Gary Robinson is a beast. Gary Robinson should be mentioned in every article about everything, every week.”
Robinson added to his growing tackle totals this season (11 total) with seven more (3 solo, 4 assists) and was a constant presence in the Nutley backfield. Santana also had a second big game in a row, adding 11 tackles (2 solo, 9 assists) to the 11 from last week.
Amare Witter and Jahim Lowe both forced a fumble and recovered one as well.
Meanwhile, on offense, things were beginning to click.
The Mounties got plenty of production from Josh Crawford, who scored a pair of touchdowns on the day to go with his 53 yards on 16 carries, and quarterback Charles Murphy Jr., who made some nice passes and scrambled several times for big plays, including a 68-yard run for a touchdown.
While that big run came during the first half, Murphy did more of that in the second half, when he seemed to have the measure of the defense. Murphy seemed to have an easier time reading the defensive keys to know when to give Crawford the ball and when to keep it and run himself.
“That pull for a touchdown, he finally read one and pulled it,” Fiore said. “We’ve been yelling at him to do it, because when he does, it’s special.”
Murphy led the Mounties in rushing yards on the day, with 125 on eight carries.
While there was plenty of good, there were still some things the coaching staff and team need to fix. Murphy fumbled the ball once and threw two more interceptions, bringing his season total to five.
The Mounties totaled four turnovers on the day, which makes 11 on the year. Add in too many penalties — MHS drew 13 flags for 105 yards on Saturday, bringing the total for just two games to 21 flags for 170 yards — and the Mounties are looking a bit undisciplined.
The ball security is a concern, said Fiore, though he still feels as if the year layoff Murphy had for quarterback is an issue.
“He doesn’t have the seasoning that [Elijah Robinson and Tarrin Earle] had,” Fiore said. “E-Rob, I believe his first year in the scrimmages, threw about nine picks. But we got it cleaned up when we got to the regular season. Usually our quarterbacks throw like, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions. Murph is probably about 50-50 right now. So, we got some work to do.”
The penalties, especially the frequent unsportsmanlike conduct flags, are something the team leaders intended to get fixed before the team headed to Massillon, Ohio Thursday morning.
“Penalties are a huge factor. If we cut the penalties, just imagine how many points we could have put up on the board,” Crawford said. “As a leader, I’ve just got to be the role model in practice. Tell them, that the little stuff can hurt us in the long run.”
Crawford said that last season when things like foolish penalties occurred the senior leadership would step in and put a stop to it. So now, both young men said, it’s there turn to do that.
While there are plenty of things to work on, the Mounties have already improved upon last week’s second half collapse. Heading into the locker room with a 21-0 lead, the game looked like it was well in hand.
Nutley, like West Orange the week before, came out with fresh energy, though, and forced a fumble early. After several runs by Raiders back Dominic Raffaelli sliced through the Mounties defense, there seemed to be a bit of unease among the onlookers. Was this about to be a repeat of last week?
However, the MHS defense stiffened and when Crawford tipped a Lucia pass into Abdul Hamilton, things seemed to right themselves again.
Crawford scored on an eight-yard touchdown at the end of the quarter, which was followed by a fumble forced by Amare Witter and recovered by Santana, leading to a Murphy pass to Walter King for a 20-yard touchdown, quickly extending the Mounties lead to 35-0.
The Mounties defense will find a tougher test at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon, Ohio, on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. when they take on the Washington High School Tigers.