by Andrew Garda
At any level, there are truths that apply when it comes to football, and one is you will not win when you turn the ball over.
Montclair High School was unable to heed that rule during Saturday’s NJSIAA North 1, Group V championship game Saturday at Woodman Field, turning the ball over four times en route to a 27-7 loss to Ridgewood.
A week after forcing six turnovers and committing none in a semifinal win over North Bergen, the top-seeded Mounties (7-5) had at least three potential scoring drives wiped out by turnovers at inopportune moments. And the second-seeded Maroons (9-2) capitalized to defeat MHS in the playoffs for the third time in four years.
“Three interceptions and a fumble,” said ninth-year head coach John Fiore, who dropped to 4-3 in sectional finals at MHS. “When you’re at this level, in these games, margin of mistake is everything. Whoever makes the most egregious mistakes is going to lose the game every time. They had zero turnovers.”
As the Section 1 champion, Ridgewood will now move on to play Piscataway, the Section 2 champion, in the first ever North Jersey Group V ‘Bowl’ game at MetLife Stadium Dec. 1.
Ridgewood had been spoiling for a rematch with MHS since the Mounties routed them 49-14 in last year’s sectional semifinals.
And the Maroons came to play, opening them aggressively, baiting the Mounties secondary with a run, then having quarterback Liam Tarleton hit Tom Bourque on a seam route for a 67-yard touchdown pass 24 seconds after the opening kickoff.
After a quick Montclair three-and-out, Ridgewood struck again, needing just three plays to score, Avery Scott breaking through the defense for a 37-yard touchdown run.
Against a Wing-T offense capable of mounting methodical, time-consuming drives, a 14-0 hole was exactly exactly what the Mounties needed to avoid.
But Montclair’s offense responded to the challenge, converting a pair of third downs on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. The scoring play saw quarterback Charles Murphy Jr. find receiver Elijah Coates, who broke through two tackles, stayed upright after taking on a third Ridgewood defender, and then was almost dragged into the end zone by teammate Walter King.
The Mounties appeared to be in business after the defense stopped Ridgewood for the first time.
Then the turnovers started.
Murphy converted a pair of third downs on Montclair’s next drive, finding King for a 23-yard gain on one and sneaking for another on a 3rd-and-1. But immediately after the sneak play, Josh Crawford was stripped by Ridgewood’s James Miller, and Jack Wittmaack recovered inside the Maroons’ 40-yard line.
It looked like Montclair had swung the momentum back when defensive end Shawn Collins tackled Scott on a 4th-and-1 run, seemingly short of the line to gain. But referees gave Ridgewood the first down, leading to a long pass play from Tarleton to McDermott. Three plays later, Tarleton scrambled around the left end for a 7-yard touchdown to extend the Maroons’ lead to 21-7 with 5:35 remaining in the first half.
Disaster then struck for the Mounties, as Wittmaack picked off Murphy on the first play of the ensuing drive, the first of three Ridgewood interceptions on the day.
Fiore said that while there was good coverage by Ridgewood, what the staff really wanted from Murphy — all season — has been more confidence running the ball for firsts to keep a drive going, not going for the big throw.
“He’s supposed to take it and run there and we’ve been on it all year about that,” Fiore explained. “If he takes off and runs, he picks up 15 yards a clip on that and then we’re good. But he doesn’t, so he tries to fit one in a window.”
Fiore didn’t fully blame his quarterback however, as there were several drops he cited that could have changed the course of the game.
“I mean there were some balls that needed to be caught too,” he said. “You gotta help your quarterback out. He’s out there being a great athlete, getting the ball in a small window, you gotta catch it.”
Ridgewood chewed up yardage on the next drive, moving 37 yards in seven plays before D.J. Sullivan’s 5-yard run gave the visitors a 27-7 lead.
With just 1:43 left in the first half, and all three timeouts, the Mounties once again moved down the field.
Murphy again converted a pair of third downs — the Mounties were an impressive 10-for-13 on those key plays all day — before he hit Coates on a 43-yard gain to set Montclair up inside the red zone with 25 seconds left in the half.
With the Mounties set to receive the second-half kickoff, a touchdown before the half could have been a huge momentum swing.
It was not to be. A low snap — something which plagued the offense all day — seemed to spook Murphy. Despite having plenty of time and under no pressure, he tried to find Coates again. But this time Ridgewood had him in triple coverage, and Wittmaack picked the ball off to end the threat, and Montclair went into the half down three scores.
Missed opportunities would be a theme of the second half, as well. Montclair opened the second half with a 10-play drive that stalled inside the Ridgewood 30, Wittmaack coming up big by batting down a fourth-down pass and preventing a big gain.
Ridgewood’s next two drives ended in punts, but they were useful drives that sapped nearly eight precious minutes from the clock.
The defense, led by Nareece Wright and Gary Robinson (8 tackles apiece), was stout after halftime, but the Mounties still needed to put points on the board.
The best scoring chance of the second half came on what turned out to be its final drive of the game.
Fiore called for a trick play to open the drive, and it appeared to be a beauty: Murphy threw a low pass behind him, and it bounced perfectly to receiver King. While it was meant to look like an incomplete pass, it was actually a planned lateral that fooled the Ridgewood defenders, allowing for King to throw the ball to a wide-open Steven Rose, who walked into the end zone.
Unfortunately, the trick play also fooled the officials, who whistled the play dead as an incomplete pass.
“We run the bounce pass for a touchdown, inadvertent whistle takes it back,” Fiore said. “Guy calls it a forward pass, it was clearly two yards behind. That hurts, but it’s not why we lost the game.”
Nevertheless, Montclair moved the ball downfield, as big pass connections from Murphy to King (for 35 yards) and Coates (for 19 yards) set the Mounties up in the Ridgewood red zone with 7:17 remaining in the fourth.
But as happened at the end of the first half, Ridgewood’s defense picked off Murphy to end the threat. The Maroons ran off the game’s final seven minutes to leave Woodman Field with the sectional championship.
In the end, the problems that hurt the Mounties early in the season hurt them again in their final game.
“The little things we’ve harped on came to fruition today,” Fiore said. “Everything…that you would consider a big play were things we’ve talked to the kids about since June. Either you’re going to do it like Tarrin [Earle]’s group and [Elijah Robinson’s] group, or you’re sometimes going to get [to the finals] and you’re going to falter.”
Montclair dropped to 8-13 all time in NJSIAA playoff finals, and lost for just the sixth time in 54 games at Woodman Field under Fiore.
While they fell short of winning a fifth sectional title in seven years, the 2018 Mounties did capture the program’s eighth consecutive regular-season league championship, tying East Orange for the Super Football Conference-Liberty Blue division crown (MHS defeated East Orange head-to-head in September).