by Andrew Garda
“We need a first down, I can get you a first down.”
Montclair senior slot receiver/cornerback Steven Rose isn’t normally wanting for confidence, but even so, it’s not often you see him or any player say something like that to offensive coordinator Pat Leonardis.
The Mounties were well ahead of North Bergen in the fourth quarter of their 47-12 NJSIAA North I, Group V semifinal win, but facing a 3rd-and-15 on the Bruins’ 23-yard line. MHS was looking for a first down to continue burning the clock, and Rose knew he was the man to do it.
“I knew that they were going to suck in on the run, so I told Coach Leo if he was to throw the flat ball, we can get [the first],” Rose said postgame.
Rose lined up on the left side of the Mounties’ formation standing tight to the line next to the tight end. He took an initial step forward at the snap, then cut behind the offensive line, running to the opposite side of the field.
North Bergen’s defensive end seemed to expect Rose to block him, and lost his balance when the receiver instead ran past. Quarterback Charles Murphy Jr. saw Rose open and tossed a short pass to his receiver.
With nothing but turf in front of him, Rose easily got the first down, but he didn’t stop there.
“After I caught the ball, I was determined to get into the end zone,” Rose said. “I knew I needed a score, my teammates wanted me to get in there, and I got in there for them.”
North Bergen got bodies on Rose, but the Mounties receiver refused to be denied, breaking three tackles on his way to the end zone.
It was Rose’s first touchdown of the season, and a great example of how at this point in the season, contributions come from all directions.
Playoff chaos, revisited
Criticism of the NJSIAA’s new playoff selection process was widespread in the media when the brackets were revealed two weeks ago. The new ranking system, which combines the old power-point system with the Born Power Index ratings, came under fire when several coaches expressed their displeasure. Some said that the Born rating formula is too secretive and opaque, preventing coaches from understanding exactly what they need to do to qualify; others disliked that two- and three-win teams with strong schedules made the playoffs ahead of four- and five-win teams with less challenging slates; and others railed against Born’s reliance on margin of victory, which would theoretically encourage teams to run up the score on overmatched opponents.
Whether or not those criticisms lead to changes in the offseason, there is strong evidence that the new system succeeded, at least in terms of accurately seeding the best teams in each bracket. Of the 20 public-school sectional finals this weekend, 19 of them feature a matchup with the section’s No. 1 seed playing against either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
There were only 11 such matchups last year, and 12 the year before that, suggesting that the new ranking system is accurately identifying the best teams and preventing them from playing prior to the championship round more often than in years past.
In fact, no team seeded fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth reached a final for the first time since the NJSIAA expanded the state playoffs from four groups to five in 2012.
So while the new playoff system may not be flawless, and there aren’t many Cinderella stories to choose from this weekend, it appears as if there should be some high-quality football being played throughout the state this Friday and Saturday.
The new playoff system will also create a unique situation for the 2018 Mounties, who will play for a sectional title on their home field. Woodman hasn’t hosted a championship game since the famous, heartbreaking loss to Randolph in the 1990 North 2, Group IV championship game.
Dubbed by the Star-Ledger in 2000 as the “Greatest High School Game Ever Played,” an estimated crowd of more than 13,000 — among them head coach John Fiore, then a 22-year-old student at Montclair State University — witnessed Randolph kick a controversial last-second field goal to deal the Mounties a 22-21 loss.
Randolph came into the game holding a 48-game win streak, and mourning the loss of head coach John Bauer, who had died 17 days before. Montclair was 10-0, and ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today.
The Mounties clung to a 21-19 lead late in the fourth quarter and nearly ran out the clock following a Randolph fumble. But despite Montclair fans storming the field with :00 showing due to a malfunction, referees put seven seconds back on the clock, forcing Montclair to punt from their own end zone.
The punt was short, and Randolph made a fair catch with one second left, allowing them to kick a 37-yard field goal as time expired. It was one of Montclair’s bitterest defeats ever, a result they will no doubt be looking to avoid this Saturday.
Breaking down the Maroons
The moment Ridgewood had officially defeated Clifton in last weekend’s North 1, Group V semifinal, the Maroon players and coach made it clear they were still feeling slighted by last season’s 49-14 semifinal loss at Woodman Field.
Head coach Chuck Johnson told NJ.com that his players had been looking forward to a rematch for a full year, hanging a poster in their locker room reminding them of last year’s game.
“They ran it up on us,” Johnson was quoted as saying. “But it’s about to come down now.”
So the Mounties know full well they’ve got a target on their backs. In their favor, though, is that Montclair has been improving markedly in recent weeks.
“I think we’re starting to play like the type of team we could be,” Fiore said Saturday.
Additionally, the Mounties will have the crucial home-field advantage. Montclair has won 13 straight at Woodman Field, and boasts a 48-5 home record under Fiore (4-0 against Ridgewood).
Fiore is keenly aware of all that, as well as the Mounties’ 0-2 record at Ridgewood’s home field since 2010, stressing the importance of gaining the No. 1 seed.
But the players understand how special Saturday will be.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play in a sectional at Woodman Field,” senior Josh Crawford said. “To have the crowd that probably going to be out here for Ridgewood in the state sectional, it’s going to be hectic.”
Ridgewood is a difficult team to defend, as they are well-disciplined in running a classic Wing-T offense designed to outwit the opponent with misdirection. The Maroons will run the ball, and they’ll run it well. In fact, it’s virtually all they do since senior quarterback Will Mollihan sprained his ankle on Oct. 12.
Will Cardew is the key back to watch, rushing for 1,187 yards and 17 touchdowns.
So, as has been the case during this playoff run, Montclair needs to be on point defending the run.
Ridgewood’s defense is solid, and they will key in on containing Josh Crawford and Charles Murphy Jr., while their opportunistic pass defense looks to force Murphy into bad throws they can intercept.
This is likely to be a tight, tough game, and the Mounties know it.