by Andrew Garda
LIVINGSTON—It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t all that smooth, but the Montclair High School football team locked up its spot in the state playoffs with a 33-13 win over Livingston Friday night, Oct. 25.
That having been accomplished, though, the Mounties (4-4) were not remotely satisfied with the win over the Lancers (2-6).
“We were killing ourselves,” junior quarterback Michael Robinson said after the game. “There were a lot of mistakes and tonight wasn’t our night. We can play way better. We could have had three [more] touchdowns, where simple mistakes on drives [stopped us].”
Head coach John Fiore, who notched his 150th career win Friday night — 88 of which have come with the Mounties — agreed things need to be tightened up.
“There’s still some sloppiness we’ve got to take care of,” he said. “You want me to be honest? We didn’t play great. Offensively we didn’t play great, defensively. We hit some plays, but we had some other plays there to hit and we didn’t do some things or finish them.”
Montclair totaled just 280 yards of offense, though it did get solid games from quarterback Michael Robinson (5-for-9, 150 yards, 3 TD) and running back Jordan Diggs, who reached the 100-yard mark for the fourth straight week.
And senior receiver/cornerback Donovin Bell had a highlight-reel game, catching two touchdown passes and returning one of his two interceptions for a third score.
However, it was clear the Mounties seemed to be off their game from the outset, as they mishandled the opening kickoff, giving Livingston an instant turnover. That turned into points quickly, as the Lancers’ David Contagno threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Luke Nardone to give the home team an early 7-0 lead.
The first Montclair offensive snap was an attempted flea flicker that went awry, turning into a 10-yard loss. But the Mounties bounced right back with Robinson finding Bell on a deep ball that turned into a 94-yard touchdown down the right sideline. It was a great pass with Bell in single coverage, the receiver making a nice adjustment to catch it without losing momentum.
“Donovin’s an All-State caliber kind of kid, he’s a Division 1-A, I-AA athlete, he’s got good grades and [colleges] have to start coming in to take a look,” Fiore said.
Aqeel Plant would figure into the Mounties’ next scoring drive, getting his fingertips on a Livingston punt to set up good field position, then making a great contested catch in the end zone to give Montclair a 13-7 lead just before the end of the first quarter.
That’s where the score would sit at halftime, though, as the Mounties offense stalled several times. Miscues and penalties were mostly to blame more than the Lancer defense, and something Robinson said would need to be improved this week before the team faces Irvington in the regular-season finale at Woodman Field this Saturday, Nov. 2.
Special teams had a rough day, with the fumbled kick return and a missed extra point going along with a poor punt snap that gave Livingston the ball inside the Montclair 20.
The Mountie defense made a stand in that case, though, and the Livingston threat stalled after a touchdown was called back for offensive pass interference penalty.
Livingston’s next drive also went deep into the Montclair red zone, but Bell squashed it with an interception in the end zone just before halftime.
The offense woke up in the second half, marching 73 yards in five plays to take a 20-7 lead when Robinson executed a picture-perfect read-and-pull and scampered 50 yards to the end zone.
“The tackle and [defensive end] came down, since Jordan had been running the ball all night,” Robinson said of the play. “So, I was just waiting for that one moment, for them to come fully down. I saw it and open field and just tried to get into the end zone.”
Robinson found Bell for their second TD connection on the next Mountie drive, this one a 16-yard play in which Bell left a Lancers defender on the ground and several other defenders frozen in place with a tremendous juke as he raced to the end zone.
Livingston responded with a methodical drive, but it would end with Bell striking again, jumping a hitch route and taking his second interception of the day 69 yards to give the Mounties an unassailable 33-7 lead.
“He just played smart,” Fiore said of Bell’s defensive play. “Did everything he was supposed to do. Made plays. He had a helluva night.”
As is often the case when a player has a highlight worthy night, Bell credits listening to his coaches with his play.
“I listened to my coach, and a couple of veterans like D.J,” Bell said, referring to MHS alum DJ Williams, who was in attendance. “They told me to slow-play it. Because I have the speed to recover. So, I just listened to coach and cut off the slant.”
Along with Bell’s two interceptions, Nareece Wright had 15 tackles to lead the MHS defense, while Jordan Williams and Dhani Clifford each had a sack and Jordan Anderson notched 1.5 sacks.
Now, Montclair turns its attention towards a strong Irvington squad (6-2), who soundly beat the Mounties last November, as their final tune-up for the playoffs. The opening round of the playoffs follows on the weekend of Nov. 9-10, with pairings being announced this Sunday, Nov. 3.
“We have to make sure our team stays together, listen to our coaches,” Bell said. “We’re already in the playoffs but, we do need this win, it’s a very important win. So, we need to focus on just winning the game.”
“We’ve still got a few things to clean up. Irvington’s going to be a tough opponent this week, and the playoffs aren’t going to be easy,” Fiore said. “They’re going to come to play. They only play a couple of good teams a year and we’re one of them, we’re at the end and we’re their Super Bowl.”
It’s an attitude Montclair might want to adopt because from here on out, every game could be the Mounties’ Super Bowl.