BY ANDREW GARDA
The Montclair Mounties football team got back on track this past Saturday as it buried visiting Columbia (3-3, 1-3 SFC-Freedom Red), 35-0.
The resounding win brought the team’s record back to .500 and was just the thing to help it rebound after its tough loss to St. Joseph of Montvale.
Head coach Pete Ramiccio was pleased with the win, but also with the discipline and composure his team showed when things got chippy and the Cougars started jawing at Montclair.
“To me, that’s the most important message, that we have to do things the right way,” Ramiccio said after the game. “Of course, you want to win games. Of course, you want to be successful. But especially at this level of football it is so important to do things the right way.
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“I’m not a fan of the nonsense. It’s good to see that we are hustling on and off the field today, we were walking away from things that didn’t need to happen. The focus is on us, and that’s the big thing for us.”
Montclair (3-3, 3-1 SFC-Freedom Red) now sits third in its division and has a chance to grab second with a win against West Orange on the road this Friday, Oct. 15, with kickoff at 7 p.m.
The win over Columbia gave the Mounties 20 power points — the second-most they have accrued all season after the 36 they received from their loss to St. Joseph — and moves them into the No. 11 seed overall in the North, Group 5 Conference.
For Columbia, the game was the second big loss in a row, after being defeated by West Orange on Oct. 1 by a score of 42-7. The Cougars are currently hanging on to the No. 16 seed in the playoffs, which would pit them against East Orange, the current top seed, in the first round.
As it stands, as the No. 11 seed MHS would see the team it faces Friday, the Mountaineers.
If Montclair is going to take down West Orange, either Friday or in the playoffs, it will need to continue to improve its offensive line play. Over the course of the season the line has played well, but during the last two games it allowed too much pressure on quarterback Solomon Brennan while also not opening up enough space for running backs Jordan Williams and Justin Bernal to gain speed before the defense makes contact.
While Brennan saw too much pressure during the middle stretch of the game, he still made two touchdown passes, both in the first quarter. The first came at the tail end of an 11-play, 61-yard drive that was capped by a short pass to Bernal, who scrambled the rest of the way for a touchdown. A Gage Hammond extra point made it 7-0 with 5:09 to play in the first quarter.
After Williams recovered a Cougars fumble on the Columbia 17, Brennan found David Thom-Rodgers with a nice throw downfield that the receiver hauled in and took for the second Mounties touchdown.
Columbia managed to get a pair of stops to keep Montclair out of the end zone on its next two drives, and it looked as though Montclair might not score again in the half.
However, Montclair picked off the Columbia quarterback — one of four turnovers generated on the day by the defense — and with just 30 seconds left in the half, Williams bulled his way into the end zone. After another Hammond extra point, it was 21-0, Montclair.
Ramiccio was very happy with the defensive play.
“Anytime you’ve forced four turnovers, especially as a defensive guy, your heart leaps a little bit,” he said.
Williams and Bernal would each run in a touchdown in the third quarter, before the second unit stepped on the field, as Montclair wore the Cougars down.
While Montclair was happy with the victory, there are still things to work on.
The offensive line needs to solidify as a unit and give the offense more space to work. The overall numbers for the offense looked good —185 yards on 47 plays, 147 of which were on the ground — but they could have been much better, and in the middle of the game, the offense stalled far too often.
Bernal and Williams found defenders in their gaps and running lanes too often, and Brennan’s speed and vision allowed him to run outside when he had to move, but he found himself dodging pressure on pass plays a little too often.
On the plus side, the offense found its way back into the end zone plenty of times Saturday, a good sign as the playoffs approach. Of course, the four turnovers the defense generated — fumble recoveries by Williams, Yabsira Yemane and Jabriel Muhammad, plus an interception by Isaiah Holm — were a massive factor in shutting down Columbia’s offense, as was constant pressure by the front-line defenders.
A win against West Orange would give the Mounties a chance to move past Paterson Eastside (4-2, 2-2 SFC-Patriot Red) into the tenth seed, as the Ghosts have a tough divisional game against Clifton (5-1, 3-1 Patriot Red) this weekend.
None of that matters much if Montclair can’t beat the Mountaineers on Friday.
West Orange has beaten the Mounties the last two times the teams have met, outscoring them 64-12 while doing so. The Mountaineers are coming into the game on a two-game win streak, with victories over Columbia and then Union City this past weekend, by a score of 33-14.
West Orange quarterback Zander Lipsey has thrown for 619 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception while completing 67 percent of his passes.
Lipsey’s ability to protect the ball will be tested by a Montclair defense that has been generating a lot of turnovers. Montclair is currently at plus-13 in turnovers, meaning it has caused 13 more turnovers on defense than the offense has given up. When a team can do that, it tends to win more games than it loses, and the Mounties will need that to be true to get the win in West Orange this Friday.
“West Orange is a great program. Coach [Darnell] Grant is an incredible football coach and has done a great job resuscitating that program,” Ramiccio said. “They’re going to be tough, especially up on the hill with the wind on a Friday.
“It’s going to be tough, but the focus right now for us is to get healthy. You know, we still got some guys banged up from [St.] Joe’s last week. Hopefully we’ll get most of them back in time for Friday night. We’ll do what we can.”