by Andrew Garda
NUTLEY — Last week’s loss to West Orange left the Montclair High School football team in search of its first win for 2019, which would also double as the program’s 750th all-time.
Behind three 100-yard rushers and a defensive effort that forced four Nutley turnovers in the first half, the Mounties checked off both boxes with a 49-21 win at the Nutley Oval Saturday afternoon, Sept. 14.
As was the case early in their loss to West Orange a week earlier, the defense stepped up while the offense continued to work out the kinks in its rhythm.
Nutley (1-1) had early opportunities to score, driving into the red zone twice in the first quarter, only to come up empty thanks to linebacker Nareece Wright stripping and taking the ball right out of the hands of a Nutley ball-carrier, and Jaren Haley-Coley intercepting a trick-play halfback pass attempt in the end zone.
Jaheim Lowe got in the act in the second quarter, forcing a fumble, recovering it and returning it to the Raider 20-yard line, setting up a short Mountie touchdown drive. Lowe then picked off Nutley quarterback Justin Lucia at the 2-yard line, snuffing out yet another promising scoring threat for the home team.
Lowe said the team knew they could generate some turnovers when watching the Nutley tape.
“I saw they didn’t cover the ball a lot,” he said after the game.
That meant the Mounties knew they could attack the ball as well as the ballcarrier, hoping the wrest the football away from them. Against a Nutley offense reliant on the misdirection running game, it worked.
“The defense might have bent today but [if not for] three red zone stops, this game is 49-42,” said head coach John Fiore. “[Nutley coach Steve] DiGregorio does a great job and we need to get more disciplined. Because when we get to the playoffs, against the Ridgewoods and those teams, if you’re not reading your keys, you’re shot.”
The defensive effort allowed the Montclair offense time to get in rhythm after their opening two drives went three-and-out, concentrating on running around and through the Raiders.
That meant a steady diet of junior running back Jordan Diggs, who had his best game as a Mountie, carrying 21 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns. He and junior quarterback Michael Robinson, running behind the physical Montclair offensive line, were responsible for all 12 plays on an 80-yard touchdown drive — capped by Diggs’ one-yard plunge — to give the Mounties an 8-0 lead less than a minute into the second quarter.
The Mounties didn’t let off the gas on the ground after that. By the time the clock ticked off to all zeroes to end the game, Montclair had accumulated 400 rushing yards. Along with Diggs’ effort, sophomore running back Jordan Williams ran for 121 yards on 7 carries and a touchdown, while Robinson gained 109 and a pair of scores.
Robinson broke off several big runs in the second quarter, including a 12-yard touchdown run, and the Mounties took advantage of Lowe’s fumble recovery for a short touchdown drive to take a 20-0 lead.
But Nutley finally got on the board with a last-minute touchdown drive, with quarterback Anthony Haines finding Christopher Kruse on a 10-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first half, cutting the Mountie advantage to 20-7.
That score, along with a sturdy defensive front that limited Diggs to just 41 yards on 13 carries in the first half, meant that the opening drive of the second half would be an important one.
“We told them in the locker room, you’ve got to go down and score and then we’ve got to get a stop and do it again,” Fiore said. “And then, not that the game is over, but we’d pretty much have it in hand.”
So that’s just what the Mounties did. Diggs and Robinson traded carries to put together a 6-play, 64-yard drive capped off by a 17-yard Diggs touchdown, his second of the day.
“The only thing I’d like to see [different] in that opening drive was maybe take six minutes off the clock instead of three,” Fiore said.
Nutley responded with a touchdown drive of their own, aided by a defensive holding call on what appeared to be a fourth-down incompletion, to pull within 28-14 midway through the third.
But the Mountie offensive line began to spring Diggs for big yardage. The running back broke off runs of 44, 5, and 24 yards before waltzing in untouched for his third touchdown.
Diggs gave credit to his offensive line for his explosive third quarter, in which he gained 119 of his 160 yards.
“I want to give it all up to my O-line because without them I wouldn’t be getting anything,” the junior back said after the game. “Without them I wouldn’t be getting however many yards I had, however many touchdowns. I just want to give all the glory to them.”
Robinson echoed the praise.
“They paved the way for us,” he said. “All me and the two Jordans had to do was put our head down, follow through and keep the cushion.”
Fiore felt the second-half success was the payoff from the hard work the line put in earlier in the game, as well as during the summer.
“I just think our linemen were wearing on them,” he said. “I think they got tired and our guys, we’ve conditioned the hell out of our guys since June 10th so we can run up-tempo when we want to. So we ran up-tempo and I think that helped us.”
While the ground game is now humming along, the passing attack remains a work in progress. Robinson only completed two passes out of 9 attempts, but while that doesn’t make for a pretty box score, both were flashes of what he is capable of when he’s feeling right.
Up 14-0 with just over eight minutes left in the first half, Robinson spied Collins cutting across the end zone. He then made his best throw this season, a frozen rope over two defenders where only the 6-foot-3 Collins had a chance to make a play.
Collins doesn’t have a scholarship to Rutgers University because he’s a nice kid, but because he’s a tremendous athlete with fantastic hands and a “my ball” mentality.
All that was on display as he made a leaping grab and came down with the ball for a score.
“He’s a big target,” Robinson said of the Rutgers commit. “[Nutley] covered the flat pretty well but I saw Shawn lift his hand up, so I tried to put it high, a place where he can go and get it. He got it and came down with the catch.”
Robinson is still fairly inexperienced at the varsity level, but while the edges of his play are still rough, you can see the ability on throws like that.
With the ground game working though, and a defense playing well, the Mounties have some leeway while Robinson continues to work his way back to the quarterback he was prior to shoulder surgery.
Montclair will look to keep up its winning ways this Saturday, Sept. 21, when they play their Woodman Field opener at 1 p.m. against Bayonne High School. The Bees are 2-0 this season with a forfeit win over Memorial-West New York and an overtime victory over Livingston.
“I think we’ve got to get better each week. We were a little better than last week, not much, but we’ve got to get better,” said Fiore.