by Andrew Garda
East Orange — The roller-coaster season of the Montclair High School football team came to an end on Saturday, Nov. 9, as the Mounties were defeated by East Orange High School in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA North 1, Group V playoffs by a score of 15-14.
It was the first Jaguars playoff win since 2011 and the earliest the Mounties have exited the playoffs in head coach John Fiore’s tenure.
It was the second week in a row where the game came down to the last few minutes of play, but unlike last week’s win over Irvington, the Mounties couldn’t pull out a win.
Montclair had scored 14 straight points in the third quarter to take a 14-9 lead with both running back Jordan Diggs and quarterback Michael Robinson both running for scores.
As the two teams entered the fourth quarter, though, momentum shifted towards the Jaguars as the Mounties offense stalled twice.
“We had to finish one drive,” Fiore said after the game. “When it was 14-9 and we had the ball, we had two drives in a row. We have to go down and finish that.”
Instead, not only did the Mounties find themselves unable to sustain a drive into the end zone, the defense had one of the few poor moments, failing to cover EO’s Alshadee Salamn on a wheel route, resulting in a 22 yard touchdown to make the score 15-14.
“We had them 4th and 20 and had the kid sacked or scrambling and the DB forgets to stay on the only kid we needed to cover,” Fiore said. “That’s a coverage we run all the time, through 7-on-7 and everything. That [defender] knows he’s got that deep quarter, but he wasn’t there. I don’t know why, he can’t tell me and that’s it. And not only that, [Salamn] was supposed to be covered there.”
Despite the lapse in a critical moment, the defense played very well overall. East Orange began all but one drive during the first half in the Montclair end of the field, and yet the defense held them to one touchdown, the other two points coming on a bad snap during a punt, the ball skidding out the back of the end zone.
In total, they only had 195 yards of offense for the day.
The other touchdown — the Jaguars only other offensive score — came on a run where Montclair had Salamn in the backfield, but didn’t finish the tackle. The play before was a long play on a screen pass Montclair allowed to get to the edge for a big gain.
Aside from those moments, the defense did tremendous work. That Montclair walked away down just nine points when the first half that saw their offense stall consistently, putting the defense in awful field position time after time, says just how well the defense played.
“The defense played lights out except for [three] plays,” Fiore said. “Listen, I know there was a huge hold on that screen pass that set up the touchdown, and then [Salamn] we have him in the backfield, and we don’t take care of him. So that screen, and that play, and later on that [touchdown] pass. Other than those three plays our defense played lights out.”
Despite a valiant effort by the defense, the offense just couldn’t get going on a consistent basis.
“I put this on the offense, I put this on me,” Fiore said.
Fiore wasn’t alone in terms of blame. The offensive line struggled to contain a stout EO defensive front, resulting in Diggs’ being stymied most of the day. He would eventually gain 110 yards on 21 carries, but most of that came during the Mounties’ big third quarter. Robinson was under constant pressure, and seemed to be locked onto Donovin Bell, who was well covered. The result was a regression for the junior, a game which saw a 1-of-9 effort gaining just 7 yards with one pick. With so few complete passes, Shawn Collins never even saw a target, though there were definitely plays which were designed for him as the primary read, and during which he was open.
“[It was] atrocious,” Fiore said of the effort. “Hey, we go with the ups and downs with Michael. When Michael’s hot, we kill it. When Michael’s not, we don’t. And he’s going to get better with another year under his belt.”
That’s been the mantra all season long for this Mounties team, and the difficult balance the coaching staff had to try and strike. Develop young talent for next season, while trying to achieve success during this one.
It didn’t always work, but the growth the team showed gives some hope for 2020.
Still, Fiore feels there was a missed opportunity for the Mounties in 2019.
“We knew this was going to be an up and down year, but it’s a shame because this side of the bracket was wide open. I felt really good about Passaic County Tech. I really think that us, East Orange, West Orange are a lot better than they’re giving us credit to be. Didn’t surprise me with West Orange last night and I knew this was going to be a barn burner.”
West Orange beat Piscataway Friday night in the North 2, Group IV side of the bracket, 30-18.
While he has hope for the future, Fiore also appreciates how much his current class of seniors did for the program.
“We’re going to miss all of them, greatly,” he said. “Donovin Bell, who was a two-way starter this year, who played lights out. He made some big plays all season for us. Sebastien Fortune, [and] Patty Barr were the staple of our offensive line and then Sebastien on the D-line. Shawn Collins started to play like a Division 1 football player the second half of the year and that was part of our change,. Nareece Wright, he’s the glue on defense, he gets everybody in the right position, does a great job. And Nate Bryan, unselfish as there can be. He’s hurt, was our starting tailback, came back and knew Jordan Diggs pretty much took [the job] and then he goes to corner and was lights out all season for us there. And then all the other guys I didn’t name, they filled a role.”