by Andrew Garda
The state football playoffs are upon us once again, and while there has been some grumbling — OK, a lot of grumbling — from some corners about the new ranking system, the reality is that this season has been set in stone.
Which means, despite a 34-21 loss to Irvington last Friday night, Montclair High School did what it needed to do this season to secure the No. 1 seed in the North 1, Group V playoffs, along with home-field advantage through the sectional finals.
Now they just have to battle their way there.
There were a few surprises when the official North, Group V brackets were released Sunday. The top 16 teams qualified, with the northernmost eight ending up in the North 1 bracket, the southernmost eight in North 2. The Mounties were always locked into the North 1 field, while powerhouses Piscataway and Union slotted into the North 2 bracket. Surprisingly, both Union City and East Orange — who have been part of the North 1 bracket in recent years — were far south enough to be seeded in the North 2 field.
That doesn’t mean the North 1 tournament will be a cakewalk for Montclair, especially given the rollercoaster season they’ve had. The Mounties open tournament play against eighth-seeded West Orange (3-6) this Saturday, Nov. 3, at Woodman Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
The winner will play either fourth-seeded Hackensack (4-4) or fifth-seeded North Bergen (6-2) in the semifinal round the weekend of Nov. 9-10. If MHS can win both games, it would host a sectional final at Woodman the weekend of Nov. 16-17, and the sectional champion will play the North 2 champion in the new “bowl game” at MetLife Stadium Nov. 23-24 or Nov. 30-Dec. 1.
In the other half of the bracket, No. 2 Ridgewood (6-2) hosts No. 7 Passaic Tech (2-6), while third-seeded Clifton (6-2) hosts sixth-seeded Paterson Kennedy (5-3).
Some of the reasons for complaints about the playoff seeding process can be seen here, with two sub-.500 teams in the North 1 bracket, and two others in North 2. Two above-.500 teams (Livingston and Bayonne) missed the playoffs, and 4-4 Passaic did not qualify although they had the 15th-highest power-point total in the section.
There’s no dominant team in this bracket. Every team, including the Mounties, have struggled at some point.
The majority of these teams run the ball, and run it well, making defense up front of paramount importance.
It also means the offensive line will be important, as opening lanes for the running backs is going to be a big factor in gaining yards.
The Mounties face some issues down in the mud though, with Bo Bigelow out for the foreseeable future and Willie Matthews done for the season with an Achilles injury.
Some might not understand how the absence of Matthews, a linebacker, will make the defensive line’s job harder, so let’s start there.
There are two different ways in which Matthews’ impact was huge for the line. First, Matthews could always be counted on to step up into gaps and make tackles inside. That is to say, Matthews was excellent at reading a play, reacting when the running back went inside by the guards, and filling that hole. Without him there, the defensive tackles will have to be careful about their reads, as the remaining linebackers while good, aren’t as quick to react.
Secondly, Matthews is a sideline-to-sideline player, meaning he can be on the left side of the line, see the play going to the opposite field, and get to the ballcarrier to make a play anyway. Not everyone can do that, and the Mounties will miss that.
Without him, defensive ends Gary Robinson Jr. and Shawn Collins are going to have to work hard to make sure they set the edge and keep any back from turning the corner.
Robinson, in particular, is a tough customer in that regard. He’s played exceptionally well this season, leading the team with 9.5 tackles for loss.
But the cornerbacks and safeties have to step up in run defense as well, as the defensive ends aren’t asked to go from one side of the field to the other and, in fact, are not supposed to. If the defensive backs don’t step up, the Mounties will struggle.
The offensive line will feel the lack of Bigelow. While it has been unfortunate that the Mounties have had to shuffle offensive linemen around this season due to injury, it means they have experienced depth.Furthermore, they only need to worry about replacing one guard, as Patrick Barr returned against Irvington, playing well, and more importantly, staying healthy.
“Guys like Gary Robinson and Amare Witter have given their heart and souls to this team all year. Sebastian Fortune too. We hope people start following that lead,” Fiore said
West Orange, the sequel
It’s been nine long weeks since West Orange opened the season with a stunning 26-19 victory over the Mounties that’s as shocking now as it was then.
MHS led that game 16-0 at halftime, the Mountaineers took advantage of a series of cramps and injuries to roll up 219 rushing yards in the second half — along with a defensive touchdown — to steal the win.
Since that Aug. 30 win, West Orange has fallen on hard times, dropping six of their next seven games and losing dynamic running back Shakhi Carson (168 yards and a TD vs. Montclair) for the season due to injury.
How the Mounties defensive backs and linebackers play against the run will be the difference in stopping this unit.
The Mountaineers don’t throw a lot — and they completed zero passes in the Aug. 30 win — but they may test a Mounties secondary that has been inconsistent in recent weeks.
After struggling to run the ball in that Week Zero game, the Mounties have run the ball very effectively the last month, including a combined 1,067 rushing yards in their last three games (8.3 yards per rush.)
The offensive line is capable of opening lanes, and Josh Crawford, Jordan Diggs and Charles Murphy Jr. are threats to break long plays inside and out. Their athleticism is hard to match, and while they will have to throw the ball to keep West Orange honest, Montclair’s strength is up front and in the backfield.