by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School football team got back to its winning ways this past Saturday, Oct. 5, with a dominant 44-7 victory over the Columbia Cougars at Woodman Field.
The Mounties started things off with a little razzle-dazzle on the opening play of the game, with wide receiver Donovin Bell running a sweep, handing it off to backup quarterback Solomon Brennan on a reverse, and Brennan finding starting quarterback Michael Robinson on a wide-open wheel route down the field.
Robinson ran the rest of the way for a 56-yard touchdown and less than 30 seconds into the first quarter, the Mounties were on top, 7-0, in style.
According to both Robinson and Brennan, the play had been installed back on Wednesday and was always going to lead things off for the offense.
“You know Coach Fiore. He’s a trickster,” said a smiling Robinson after the game. “He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. We trusted in his plan and he called that in the first play on Wednesday. I told him ‘Coach, I’m gonna catch it,’ and we executed it perfectly today.”
It was just the start of a brilliant day for the Mounties’ junior quarterback, who passed and ran for touchdowns Saturday in addition to his reception TD. Robinson led all rushers with 118 yards, including a 45-yard scoring play to close out his day late in the third quarter.
“I saw some things on film and I knew they wouldn’t cover the quarterback right away,” Fiore said. “And [linebacker Michael Caines] is a heck of an athlete for them, so he turned and tried to get there, but Michael outran him to the end zone.”
And for the sophomore Brennan, it was a great way to notch his first touchdown for the varsity team.
“Ah, man it felt so good,” he said. “My first ever [varsity] pass, you know, goes for a 60-yard touchdown. That felt so good. I’m very happy.”
For Fiore, it was a terrific moment reminiscent of former Mountie quarterback great Elijah Robinson, whose first career varsity pass (and first of 38 career TD passes) came in the 2012 season opener on a similar trick play.
The play kick-started a dominant day for the Mounties against a surprising Columbia squad that started the season 3-0 before a loss to West Orange the week prior. Montclair badly needed to get back into the win column after a heartbreaking home loss to Bayonne and a dispiriting 26-6 loss at East Orange.
Defensively, the Mounties (2-3, 2-2 SFC-Liberty Blue) did just that. They limited Columbia to just 64yards of total offense, and forced punts on the Cougars’ first nine possessions. Columbia did not run a single play inside the Mounties’ 44-yard line, and they did not achieve their first first down until the 2:30 mark of the second quarter.
Columbia’s lone score came when Caines sacked Robinson near the Mounties’ goal line, and Cougar defensive lineman Justin Anderson scooped the ball and scored on a short return.
Led by linebacker Nareece Wright (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) and fellow senior captain Shawn Collins (5 tackles, sack), the Mountie front seven completely shut down the Cougars’ ground game while also bringing plenty of pressure to Columbia quarterback Nick Aaron.
Mountie defenders batted away five of Aaron’s 17 pass attempts, and played tight coverage on the others.
One of the individual highlights for Montclair saw the return of senior Nate Bryan, who was back in the lineup healthy and contributed on both sides of the ball. A presumptive starter at running back and cornerback, Bryan had been out of action for the first four games of the season.
The first time he touched the ball, he scampered for 18 yards, and he said he felt back in the zone immediately.
“As soon as I saw somebody pull, I knew I was going to hit it right outside,” Bryan said. “It felt very good.”
Later on, Bryan had a 28-yard run that set up his first touchdown of the year, a six-yard run that expanded Montclair’s lead to 22-7 as time expired in the first quarter.
On defense, Bryan had two pass deflections and two tackle, and was a key factor in the secondary’s best game of the season. Montclair had entered Saturday allowing nearly 165 pass yards per game; Columbia managed only 23.
“I’ve always played corner and they asked me to step up this week,” Bryan said. “So, I was trying to do what was best for the team and it just worked out well. Donovin [Bell] and I at corner, that’s a very good duo.”
With a little more depth at both positions, the Mounties seemed to gain the spark they have been lacking this season. Wright, the senior captain and linebacker, feels like Bryan was part of the reason for that.
“I feel like he’s the spark we need,” Wright said. “I tell people they haven’t seen a full Montclair team that’s actually healthy. So, I feel like with him back, it’s going to be a big spark for us, a big jump for us and we’ve just got to build off that energy.”
Offensively, the Mounties were efficient running the football, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. All four players who carried the ball — quarterback Robinson and running backs Bryan, Jordan Diggs and Jordan Williams — scored a touchdown. A week after going 0-for-10 on third downs, Montclair was a much stronger 3-for-6.
The only miscues were a pair of fumbles, one of which led to the Columbia touchdown, but it was a notable improvement over the past several games.
“We lost all the games because of mistakes we made, speaking from the offensive side and just the team in general,” Robinson said. “If we minimize mistakes and have a great week of practice, knowing what we’re doing and knowing our assignments, and every player doing their job, we’ll be fine.”
Having both the offense and defense on track couldn’t come at a better or more critical time, as the Mounties may face their toughest opponent of the season, Seton Hall Prep, at 1 p.m. at Woodman Field. The teams played a tight contest at the Prep’s home field last October, a 29-28 Seton Hall win, but the Pirates (4-1) will come in very confident off a 31-12 dismantling of East Orange this past weekend.
“We’ve got to build off this energy right now,” Wright said.
MHS currently sits in the 16th and final playoff spot in the current North Jersey, Group 5 playoff rankings. They still have some work to do to lock down a playoff spot, but they’ll get a huge power-point boost from playing a non-public power school this weekend.
In order to incentivize public schools to play private schools, NJSIAA regulations grant any public playing Seton Hall will receive 32 points if they lose, 48 if they win. By contrast, Montclair is only likely to receive 23 points from the win over Columbia.