Dominant Defense, Mayfield Lead Manalapan Past Middletown South to Set up RBC Showdown
MANALAPAN - With a titanic battle looming in the distance a week later against the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference, Manalapan's focus never wavered from Middletown South on Friday night as the Braves continued their mastery of the Eagles in a showdown of top-five teams.
Behind a physical defense, strong special teams play, and a 131-yard, three-touchdown performance by senior tailback Imamu Mayfield, the Braves, ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, took a big step toward their fifth straight Class A North title with a 21-3 victory over No. 4 Middletown South (4-2, 3-1) on Friday night. Manalapan (6-0, 4-0), which has won 30 straight games against Shore Conference competition, will now turn its attention to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, which has a 38-game winning streak against Shore teams.
"They're No. 1, we're No. 2, and it's been that way for a while, but we never had a chance to prove anything,'' said senior defensive end Kyle Mullen. "Now we get a chance to see who's the best."
First Manalapan had to handle its business against an Eagles team that had shut out three straight opponents, and the Braves did it with their traditional formula - run the ball, stop the run, don't turn it over, and win the field position battle.
"We had a plan and we executed it,'' junior offensive lineman Joe Sellmeyer said. "We wanted to lean on them at the end of the game, and that's exactly what we did."
The Braves pounced on the Eagles immediately after the opening kickoff by senior Mike Caggiano bounced off the hands of Middletown South returner Cole Rogers and out of bounds at the 6-yard line. Manalapan forced a three-and-out, and personal foul by the Eagles on the ensuing punt put the Braves in business at Middletown South's 15-yard line on their opening possession. Four plays later, Mayfield scored from one yard out for a 7-0 lead with 8:57 left in the first quarter.
Caggiano then grabbed a piece of history when his extra point gave him 213 career points, passing the Shore Conference scoring record for kickers of 212 set by former Middletown South standout Connor Ryan, who is now a sophomore kicker at Franklin & Marshall.
After the teams traded three-and-outs, Middletown South looked like it would get right back in the game when it drove to Manalapan's 11-yard line in four plays, keyed by a 26-yard run by Rogers, who finished with 129 yards rushing in the loss. However, on second-and-8, a fumble on the exchange between junior quarterback Matt Mosquera and Rogers after a hit by Mullen was scooped up by Manalapan senior outside linebacker Simon Bublis, who returned it 60 yards to Middletown South's 20-yard line. It was one of seven fumbles in the game for the Eagles.
"I saw it on the ground and picked it up, and unfortunately I got caught, but I put it in a great position for our offense, and they capitalized on it,'' Bublis said.
Four plays later, Mayfield bulled his way in from eight yards out to push his Shore Conference-leading total to 20 touchdowns on the season and give Manalapan a 14-0 lead with 3:30 left in the first quarter.
"We definitely dominated in the run game, and I had a lot of confidence when we started with such good field position,'' Mayfield said. "Then when Simon got the fumble recovery, that was another great momentum-changer."
Middletown South mounted its only scoring drive before the half, cutting the lead to 14-3 on a 33-yard field goal by Mosquera with 39.9 seconds left in the second quarter. The Manalapan offensive line and the defensive front took over from there in the second half to bring home a fifth straight win over the Eagles.
The Braves went on an 11-play, 67-yard drive to open the second half, converting three third downs before Mayfield made a sensational 18-yard touchdown run to increase the lead to 21-3 with 6:36 left in the period. He ran into the pile and at one point was lying horizontal right on top of Sellmeyer before springing up and finishing off the run.
"It felt like I was sprawling like in wrestling, and I kept my arm down and just got up and kept running,'' Mayfield said. "It was definitely cool."
The offensive line helped shorten the game with two drives of more than five minutes to make sure Middletown South would have limited possessions to try to mount any comeback. Caggiano also pinned the Eagles at their own 4-yard line late in the third quarter with a coffin corner punt.
"They did stunt a lot and they were very fast, but we game-planned for that and we were ready,'' Sellmeyer said.
"We went in at halftime and we told our offensive line, 'You are going to have to take control of this game,''' Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri said. "Dominate up front, and we will win this game,' and that first drive they did what they were supposed to do."
Mullen, who had a sack, a tackle for a loss and five quarterback pressures in addition to his forced fumble, led the defensive effort along with senior linebacker Joe Mendez, who also had a sack.
"We just knew that we had to win the battle up front no matter what it took,'' Mullen said. "We just had to be more physical than them. Defensively, we wanted to show we could compete with them because everyone was talking about their defense with four shutouts. We wanted to show that our defense can dominate, too."
Now all eyes will be on the Braves and Caseys next week at Count Basie Field. RBC has been the Shore's No. 1 team since 2011, while the Braves have been right behind them at No. 2.
"I'm definitely excited for that game,'' Mayfield said. "It's another statement game. It's a good game to see if we're getting better or not. It's definitely going to be exciting."
"We love playing in big games,'' Gurrieri said. "We're excited to have the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the Shore, and we'll start getting ready for them tomorrow."
Manalapan 21, Middletown South 3
. Man MS
First downs 10 14
Rushes-yards 35-136 41-173
Passing 3-10-0 9-20-0
Passing yards 39 79
Fumbles-lost 0-0 7-1
Penalties 4-35 8-75
Midd. South (4-2, 3-1) 0 3 0 0 - 3
Manalapan (6-0, 4-0) 14 0 7 0 - 21
Man: Mayfield 1-yard run (Caggiano kick).
Man: Mayfield 8-yard run (Caggiano kick).
MS: Mosquera 33-yard field goal.
Man: Mayfield 18-yard run (Caggiano kick).
Rushing - Man: Mayfield 31-131, Anerella 1-(-6), Debner 3-11. MS: C. Rogers 21-129, Mosquera 11-10, S. Pereless 1-2, McCarthy 8-32.
Passing - Man: Anerella 3-10-0 39. MS: Mosquera 9-20-0 79.
Receiving - Man: Plummer 1-12, Hodge-Rocourt 2-27. MS: Badrick 3-17, Coffey 3-51, Leandro 1-(-4), Marron 2-15.