by Andrew Garda
Things continue to go badly for the Montclair High School football team (1-3, 1-3 Super Football Conference), as they lost to Clifton (4-0, 3-0 SFC), 28-23, on Saturday, Oct. 24.
The losing streak is the first home losing streak of three games or more since 2009.
Early on, things seemed to be going perfectly for MHS, as they picked off a pass from Clifton quarterback Kyle Vellis on the first offensive play of the game. Montclair’s Eavrie Grant got his hands on it, bringing it down at the Mounties’ 37 yard line.
Montclair then executed a nine-play, 63-yard scoring drive that was capped off by quarterback Michael Robinson diving for a three-yard touchdown. Gage Hammond nailed the extra point, and just under four minutes into the game the Mounties had their first lead since Week 1 at Bloomfield.
On Clifton’s next drive, they again turned over the ball, as a lateral from Vellis fell away from his target and Jaheim Lowe scooped the ball up and sprinted for an eight-yard score.
A false start pushed the Mounties extra point unit back and Hammond missed the kick, but the Mounties were in good shape, up 13-0 with 8:13 left in the first quarter.
It was the type of opportunistic football Montclair’s defense has been known for over the years, and for a moment it seemed as if Montclair finally had its sea legs after a rough two games.
That lasted just six minutes.
Clifton didn’t rattle after the two massive offensive mistakes, choosing to run on 11 of their 13 plays as they executed a 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive that ate 6:32 off the clock and ended in a nine-yard touchdown run.
As has been the case, too many missed and broken tackles allowed runners to gain yards even when they were hit behind the line of scrimmage. High school statistics don’t track yards after contact, but if they did it was obvious to any onlooker that Clifton got a lot of them.
Montclair’s offense then got on the field, and with the help of a pass interference call, the Mounties found themselves at the Clifton 10 yard line with four downs to work with.
However, two run plays went for minus one yard, and then Robinson and Jack Sullivan failed to hook up on a pass, so the Mounties settled for a Hammond 28-yard field goal.
Up 16-7, Montclair’s defense sprang into action, and unlike Clifton’s first scoring drive, they stepped up, with a sack by Abdullah Hamilton and Dhani Clifford setting the Mustangs back for a tough third-and-13, which they failed to convert.
Montclair set up to receive the punt, intent on driving the ball into the end zone one more time to force Clifton into having to pass, which Vellis had struggled with.
Unfortunately, Lowe muffed the punt, the ball bounced away, and Clifton recovered on Montclair’s 30 yard line.
“That was the game right there,” said head coach John Fiore. “We don’t fumble that punt, we might score again. And if we do, we get the ball back [in the second half], and then you can put that game away. But we don’t, right.”
At first it looked as if MHS might mitigate the damage, as a holding penalty pushed Clifton back into a first-and-20 situation, but then Vellis completed a pass to Michael Kristoff for 13 yards before connecting with Caleb Bonaparte on a short pass that he took for a 24-yard score.
With just 1:15 left in the half and Montclair’s lead just 16-14, the Mounties scrambled to try and get within field goal range to see if Hammond could increase the lead.
But the officials ruled Robinson spiked the ball with no time on the clock, and Montclair went into the half with just a two-point lead.
Robinson threw the first of two interceptions early in the second half, which Clifton turned into an eight-play, 85-yard scoring drive to make the score 21-16.
MHS would never regain the lead.
All the issues that plagued them the previous two games began to rear their ugly heads. The missed tackles continued, and bad penalties, the first ejection in Fiore’s career, sloppy route running, lack of offensive cohesiveness and turnovers stalled Montclair drives.
The two teams would trade scores, but Montclair struggled to contain Clifton as the Mustangs ground the clock down and put the game away.
Montclair has two games to turn it around, though not in the way they expected.
They were supposed to play Barringer this Saturday at Woodman but Barringer has been inactive for two weeks under a COVID quarantine, and has not played or practiced in that time. On Monday, the team found out that Barringer would not clear COVID-19 protocols before Saturday.
The Mounties were able to replace that game with a Friday match against East Brunswick on Friday, Oct. 30 at 7pm.
If they can manage a win and gather some momentum it’ll be a big help before theyface a tough Irvington team on the road.
A .500 record is still possible, if Montclair can find the discipline to take it.