By Scott Clayton - Shore Sports Network contributor

ABERDEEN – In what was a microcosm of the entire season, Matawan overcame adversity to win a Central Jersey Group III semifinal Friday night in front of a frigid home crowd at Barry Rizzo Stadium.

Junior kicker Adam Elliott split the uprights with a 26-yard field goal with 9.7 seconds to play to send the fifth-seeded Huskies to a 23-20 win over No. 8 seed Ocean. Elliot’s kick helped Matawan move onto its first sectional final since 2011 in spite of three interceptions, four lost fumbles, a blocked punt, a blocked extra point attempt and 55 yards of penalties.

In a season that found the Huskies with an 0-2 record in early September and 3-4 on the eve of the playoff cutoff date - the same week head coach John Kaye’s father John passed away - now only a date with Carteret on the first weekend in December stands in the way of an improbable seventh state title for Matawan (7-4).

“This whole football team, school, town, community, the support they showed me in the toughest time in my life has been overwhelming,” Kaye said after Matawan’s fourth consecutive victory. “It started a long time before that, though. We were 0-and-2 and backed in the corner. You get backed in the corner like a dog, you bite your way out.”

While Matawan may not have been in a corner in the game’s final minute, it certainly looked like the game was heading to overtime when Ocean’s Matt Fisher kicked a field goal of his own, tying the game at 20 with a 29-yarder with 39 seconds to play. Matawan junior Shawn Ramcheran fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 15 and broke a return down the right sideline for 48 yards to the Ocean 37. After two first down passes, Elliott found himself in position to deliver.

In a game where nothing came easily, Ocean called timeout just as the ball was snapped on a 31-yard attempt that sailed wide left. On the restart, the play was blown dead as the Spartans (4-6) jumped offside. The third time was the charm for Elliott, a baseball standout in his first season with the football team.

“I heard the whistle on the first one, and I pulled off of it,” Elliott said. “I’ve been in tight situations before, and I’ve hit that in practice enough to be confident.”

Matawan took a 20-17 lead with 9:55 to play when freshman quarterback George Pearson found junior wideout DeJohn Rogers streaking open across the end zone from 18 yards out. The touchdown capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive that represented the cleanest football played all game. Yet even that wouldn’t last as a penalty backed up the extra point attempt, which was subsequently blocked, keeping Ocean within three points.

“We didn’t play that well,” Rogers said. “But it’s always good to get that win at the end of the day.”

Despite throwing three interceptions, with senior tailback Devon Spann out of the game with a leg injury, Matawan had to keep letting Pearson air it out in order to move the ball. Pearson finished with 230 yards passing and three touchdown passes.

“He’s just a gunslinger, its just what they do,” Kaye said of his ninth-grade signal-caller. “Like Brett Favre will go out there and throw six interceptions and then five touchdowns. Sometimes he thinks he can throw it anywhere. Losing our starting running back hurt, and and we messed up our mesh points a little bit in the running game on those fumbles. (Pearson) is a gutty kid, nothing’s going to faze him.”

Spann was in and out of the game in the first half and did not return after a pair of carries on Matawan’s first possession of the third quarter. Spann finished with 70 yards on 12 carries.

Matawan was picked up by its defense repeatedly, especially in the second half when Ocean only mustered 70 yards of offense and three first downs. Senior lineman Jake Weber was one of the leaders on that side of the ball.

“We really put ourselves in the hole with fumbles, blocked punts, interceptions, all of it,” Weber said. “If you look at that on paper you think you’re losing by 30 points. But we knew we had to just keep making stops.”

Ocean’s two trips to the end zone came in a 2:32 span bridging the first and second quarters. Senior linebacker Eric Rant picked up a fumble and sprinted 57 yards to tie the game at seven, then Ocean took a 14-7 lead on a Frank Henry 17-yard touchdown grab that came five plays after Henry picked off an underthrown Pearson pass over the middle.

“We were opportunistic there in the first half with creating turnovers,” Ocean coach Don Klein said. “But in the playoffs if you don’t take advantage of all of your opportunities then you run the risk of losing tight games. Hats off to Matawan for making a couple more plays than we did.”

Matawan opened the scoring on its third possession when Pearson floated a pass to Rogers just over the goal line with 2:26 to play in the first quarter. Senior wideout Justin Ferrara then later outjumped an Ocean defender to haul in a deep pass and turn it into a 62-yard score with 39 seconds left before halftime, knotting the game at 14.

Matawan’s last state title came in 2011, and included a win over Carteret in the first round before a 3-0 victory over Rumson-Fair Haven in the Central Jersey Group II final. Carteret’s most recent of its five state titles came the following year, when the Ramblers went 12-0.

Box score
Matawan 23, Ocean 20

Ocean (4-6)     7 7 3 3 - 20
Matawan (7-4) 7 7 0 9 - 23

Scoring Summary
M – Rogers 22 pass from Pearson (Elliott kick)
O – Rant 57 fumble return (Fisher kick)
O – Henry 17 pass from Pickett (Fisher kick)
M – Ferrara 62 pass from Pearson (Elliott kick)
O – Fisher 32 FG
M – Rogers 18 pass from Pearson (kick blocked)
O – Fisher 29 FG
M – Elliott 26 FG
Team Stats Ocean Matawan
First Downs       11      15
Rushes-Yards 29-66   31-113
Passing          12-33-0 13-26-3
Passing Yards    139    242
Fumbles-Lost      2-1       4-4
Penalties-Yards 5-30     6-55

Individual Stats
Rushing: (O) Blackmon 16-52, Pickett 9-15, Dean 4-(-1). (M) Spann 12-70, Caesar 12-44, J. Pierce 5-3, Pearson 2-(-4).
Passing: (O) Pickett 12-33-0 139. (M) Pearson 12-24-3 230, Pierce 1-2-0 12.
Receiving: (O) Henry 5-56, Blackmon 3-50, Qadiri 2-21, Dean 2-12. (M) Rogers 4-73, Ferrara 3-81, Ramcheran 3-52, Pierce 2-19, Phillip 1-17.
Interceptions: (O) Henry 1-15, Stoothoff 1-6, Dean 1-0.