by Andrew Garda
WEST ORANGE—The Montclair High School football team began the defense of their 2017 North 1, Group 5 Championship Thursday night, but a new season brought new problems. After staking out a 16-0 halftime lead, the Mounties collapsed in the August heat and were defeated, 26-19.
Collapse is definitely the right word, too, as numerous Mounties went down with cramps throughout the game.
“I’m not making excuses, but we need to do a better job of just taking care of our bodies,” head coach John Fiore said after the game. “That was ridiculous.”
The constant cramping — which claimed, among others, starting running back Josh Crawford and starting guard Bo Bigelow — exacerbated the few injuries the Mounties might have otherwise overcome. On a team whose depth is not a strong suit, Thursday night was a test, one that MHS didn’t pass.
“They beat us,” Fiore said. “But at times we were down to, on the O-line, our sixth, seventh and eighth offensive linemen. And on the D-line, we were probably down to our fifth, sixth or seventh kid. In the secondary, we had a bunch of backups out there at times.”
Even when the starters were on the field and healthy, the Mounties were plagued by miscues and mistakes.
The passing offense seemed to still be getting on the same page. Quarterback Charles Murphy Jr. finished the game with 282 yards through the air, but also had three interceptions, two of which were off a receiver’s hands.
One of those picks was in the end zone just before halftime, stopping a drive that could have potentially given Montclair a three-touchdown lead; another was returned for a back-breaking touchdown with 3:08 to play in the fourth quarter and the Mountaineers leading, 19-16.
“We tell guys, when you have tipped balls on quick outs, they turn into a pick six,” Fiore said.
Fiore and the staff know the offense is a work in progress. While Murphy had played quarterback for years prior to last season, the Mountie offense is complex and he didn’t get on the field as a quarterback very often last year.
“With the year off [from quarterback] and with what Tarrin [Earle] did last year, he was strictly a receiver,” Fiore said. “So he’s raw. What was he, 2 of 4 with a touchdown pass coming into this year? How many times did he throw tonight?”
The answer to that question is 52, an inordinate amount of passes and a signal that there was another big problem — the run game was nonexistent.
Running back/linebacker Willie Matthews left the game early with a hamstring issue, and Crawford was out for much of the game with cramps. Add in the cramps that put Bigelow out of the game, and you have two starting running backs and a critical offensive lineman out.
To their credit, West Orange sold out to stop the run, and limited the Mounties’ running backs to just 36 yards on 16 carries.
Defensively, the Mounties were stout during the first half of the game, holding the Mountaineers to just 50 yards of offense.
The Mounties jumped on top with a first-quarter touchdown pass from Murphy to Walter King; a short Crawford touchdown run to cap a drive featuring long completions from Murphy to Amarae Witter and Kyshawn King; and a safety caused by a West Orange punt snap going out of the end zone.
But the Mountaineers woke up in the second half, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry.
Shakhi Carson was especially effective, taking run after run to the outside. While the Mountie defensive ends continued to get fooled into stepping inside and moving to the quarterback, Carson took the ball around the edge for big games on play after play.
“They ran it down our throats,” Fiore said. “You have to stop the run to win football games. It’s really simple in high school football. Stop the run and you’re going to win. That kid beats us with his arm, we’ll live with it.”
Three different Mountaineers found their way into the end zone and each of them had at least one run of over 30 yards.
It‘s always dicey to point to one player’s absence as the reason something happens on the football field, as it takes 11 players to win or lose a game on either side of the ball. That said, Matthews showed how much of a difference-maker he is when he forced his way back onto the field late in the game.
The Mountaineers had taken their first lead of the game, 19-16, after Dorian Rawls’ 32-yard run with 8:45 to play. After Montclair turned the ball over on downs at their own 41, the senior linebacker re-entered the game after working with the trainer on the sideline and quickly made several plays, forcing a fumble inside the 20-yard line that was recovered by Donivon Bell.
But any momentum the Mounties had went out the window three plays later when Rawls caught a pass that hit the hands of a Mountie receiver and brought it back 49 yards to paydirt.
Rawls picked off Murphy again on Montclair’s next drive, but the Mountie quarterback made a stunning play to strip Rawls of the football as the West Orange player neared the goal line, and recovered the ensuing fumble with 2:44 remaining.
Montclair then drove nearly the length of the field in 15 plays, Murphy throwing or passing on each snap, but the Mounties had to settle for a Jacob Manthey field goal with 28 seconds to go.
West Orange recovered the ensuing onside kick, however, and Montclair could only watch as the Mountaineers celebrated like they’d won the Super Bowl.
For Fiore and his staff, it was a tough loss, but not something they haven’t faced before.
“Our job is to clean it up, get to the playoffs and then make a run,” Fiore said. “Hopefully we’ll see them in the playoffs. I’d look forward to that.”
Next up for the Mounties is their Woodman Field opener this Saturday, Sept. 8, against Nutley. Kickoff is at 2 p.m.