UNION - Raritan coach Anthony Petruzzi never doubted his 2015 team had the makings of a state champion - not when the Rockets lost five straight games during the heart of this year's schedule, not when they entered the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Playoffs with a losing record and not when they faced a 4th-down-and-long with the season on the line Saturday night against unbeaten Lincoln in the Central Jersey Group II final at Kean University.

The first time Petruzzi had any trouble believing was as the clock ticked toward all zeroes and the dream became a reality.

Senior receiver Nick Pasquin hauled in the winning 11-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Marc Carnivale with 10 seconds left in the game on a 4th-and-9 play as the Rockets drove 41 yards in less than two minutes to knock off the unbeaten Lions, 28-26, and win their first NJSIAA sectional title since 2004.

"There was never a doubt that we could do this," Petruzzi said. "From the beginning of the season, I believed these guys had what it took to get to this moment and I never stopped believing in them, even through some of the tough times."

Photo by Matt Manley

Raritan took a 7-0 lead on its first drive of the game and led nearly the entire game until Lincoln senior wide out Jason Harrison made a leaping grab and trotted into the end zone for a 50-yard go-ahead score with 4:16 left in the game. That score capped a string of 20 unanswered points by the Lions, but fortune would swing back in the Rockets favor when they stopped a Lincoln two-point try for the third time in four attempts in the game.

Despite failing to pick up a first down on the ensuing drive, the Rockets punted the ball to the Lincoln 32 yard-line with all three of their timeouts in hand. Lincoln even managed a first down to start the drive, but Raritan held down the high-powered Lincoln attack for three more plays, using two timeouts before the fourth down call by the Lions with 2:01 left.

"We have all the confidence in the world in coach Petruzzi and the rest of the staff," Pasquin said. "We see how much he cares and we prepare ourselves for that point in the game. We know when it's crunch time, coach trusts us to make plays and we trust that he's going to give us the best chance to make plays."

Lincoln helped set up Raritan's winning drive by trying to mask its punt formation and punter Ethan Zayas mishandled the snap and fell on it at his team's own 41 with 1:56 to play.

"I think we felt like, if at any point we were down and needed to drive for a score, we were confident we'd get it done," Pasquin said. "We hadn't done much on offense the last few drives, but we were also try to control the ball and run some clock. Once we had to open up, we knew we could be more of a threat."

After an incomplete pass began the drive, senior Jordan Smith picked up nine yards on a wide-receiver screen and senior running back Derek Ernst reached out for a yard to pick up the first down. On the ensuing first down, Carnivale threw a bubble screen to his left for Pasquin, and the senior weaved through a line of blockers, up the sideline and out of bounds for a 19-yard gain to set Raritan up at the 12 yard-line with 52 seconds left.

Ernst then carried for a yard and Smith could not hang on to a strike from Carnivale in the end zone after two defenders hit him as the ball arrived. On 3rd-and-9, Carnivale overthrew his target in the right corner of the end zone to set up 4th-and-9 from the 11 yard-line with 16 seconds left.

Electing not to use its last timeout to talk the play over, Raritan came out with Smith and Pasquin on the same side of the field and both ran routes up the seams before Pasquin held up shy of the goal line and gave his quarterback just enough daylight to throw him the ball at the goal line before Harrison could make a play on the ball.

"The play is called 'Jenna,'" Petruzzi said. "It's basically streaks with the options of running hitches or outs. It's an option route and our kids run it well."

"They had a rover on the outside, so I knew I had to take an inside release," Pasquin said. "I saw (Harrison) out of the corner of my eye and I knew he was sitting there waiting to give me the same shot he gave me earlier in the game. I turned around and slowed down my route a little bit just to give Marc some time to throw me the ball.

Carnivale hit Pasquin on the back shoulder and the senior spun over the goal line to send the Raritan bench into a frenzy, 10 seconds away from winning a sectional title.

"Once he threw it, I caught it around the one or the two (yard-line) and knew I just had to dive in there," Pasquin said.

With no timeouts remaining, Lincoln got a chance to run one play from its own 48 yard-line and junior Matt Thompson sacked Gordon for the second time in the game to officially end it.

"It all happened in the blink of an eye," Thompson said. "We score that touchdown and next thing I know, I have the quarterback on the ground and we win a state championship."

"Once Thompson gets the sack, I know they can't stop the clock and the game is over, but you never quite feel that way as a coach until you see all zeroes," Petruzzi said. "You're just waiting for something else to happen until you realize it's really over and we're state champs."

The championship-clinching touchdown reception capped a standout game for Pasquin, who caught four passes for 79 yards and also returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown to give Raritan a 21-6 lead late in the third quarter. After he picked off a third-down pass by Lincoln quarterback Zymire Gordon near his own sideline, Pasquin took the ball all the way across the field before diving into the end zone with 1:27 left in the quarter.

"We knew what was coming and my responsibility was to take the out route away," Pasquin said. "Once I had him pressed up against the sideline, I knew he wasn't jumping over me at that point. The ball landed right in my hands and I saw all of their slower linemen coming up the right side of the field and I knew I had to cut across. Our other defensive back, Jahciere Jones, was over there and I knew he'd make a great block, which he did and I just took it in."

Instead of putting the game away, the interception marked the last time Raritan would do anything of note for nearly a full quarter. In fact, the Rockets went without a first down from the three-minute mark of the third quarter all the way to Ernst's run on 3rd-and-1 moved the chains on the final drive.

Lincoln rallied by getting away from its aerial attack and leaning on junior running back Kamani Addison. On his first carry of the second half, Addison broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, bounced outside and scampered for 30 yards to get the Lions started while trailing 21-6. His second carry of the half was a 38-yard run up the right sideline for a touchdown with seven seconds remaining in the third quarter. Harrison turned the right corner and sped in for the two-point conversion, cutting the Raritan lead to 21-14.

After falling victim to two second-half onside kicks, Lincoln turned the tables on Raritan and recovered an onside kick of its own to get the ball right back as the game moved into the fourth quarter. This time, the Rockets bottled up the Lions on the first three plays of the drive, but on 4th-and-8 from the Raritan 41, Gordon found senior Kareem Gaulden up the left sideline for a 32-yard completion down to the Raritan nine yard-line.

The Lions again faced a fourth down near the goal line and after a timeout to discuss the call, Gordon kept the ball for a three-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-goal from the three to pull Lincoln within 21-20 with 9:23 to play.

Once again, however, the point-after attempt proved a challenge for the Lions, who attempted a two-point conversion each of the four times they scored and converted just one. After Gordon's touchdown run, the Lions were flagged for a false start, pushing the attempt back to the seven yard-line. Gordon laid the ball into Harrison near the right sideline, but despite securing the ball over the goal line, Harrison's first foot just barely came down on the with white out-of-bounds line.

The end of that nine-play, 57-yard scoring drive capped a stretch during which Lincoln ran 19 straight plays with the ball over three possessions and a little more than five minutes of game clock.

Both teams traded three-and-outs, with Raritan getting the ball back trying to run out the final five-plus minutes. After another Rockets three-and-out, Lincoln took its first lead of the game with a two-play, 51-yard drive that ended with Harrison getting behind Pasquin and out-leaping him for the 50-yard touchdown reception.

Raritan opened the game with a seven-play, 65-yard scoring drive, capped by a nine-yard run by Ernst, who carried six times for 39 yards on the drive. Pasquin set up Ernst's score with a 26-yard catch.

Lincoln came right back with an 11-play, 66-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown run by Addison. Raritan nearly buried the top-seeded Lions in a two-score hole when Smith picked off Gordon and raced 72 yards to the end zone, only to have the play negated by a defensive holding penalty.

Raritan held the 7-6 all the way to halftime and pulled out its first stop with an onside kick to open the third quarter, which the Rockets recovered. They did not, however, capitalize, as they advanced to ball down to the 11 yard-line before Gavin Toth missed a 28-yard field goal.

The Rockets defense again forced Lincoln to punt and this time, they would cash in. Carnivale hit Smith for a 17-yard completion on 3rd-and-8 from the 50, then Ernst broke off a 33-yard touchdown run, his longest of the day. Toth's second of four true extra points made it 14-6 with 4:52 left in the third.

Following Ernst's second touchdown, Raritan tried its second onside kick and again came up with the recovery. Lincoln, however, stopped the Rockets on downs at the 27.

Ernst led the Rockets with a workmanlike 136 yards on 34 carries, including the two touchdowns. Carnivale, meanwhile, was 8-for-18 for 106 yards and gave way to senior back-up Jon Rodriguez for a stretch of the second quarter. Carnivale injured his ankle, according to Petruzzi, on a play in which he lateraled the ball backward and turned it over the Lincoln at the Raritan 19.

After the defense stood firm and turned the Lions over on downs, Rodriguez came in and marched Raritan down the field with completions of 33 yards to Smith and 23 yards to Pasquin - his only two attempts of the game. The catch by Pasquin put Raritan on the 15 yard-line with 16 seconds left, but Rodriguez took a sack on the next play and with no timeouts remaining in the half, the clock ran out.

"(Rodriguez) would start for a lot of teams in the state, probably most of them," Petruzzi said. "He is the ultimate senior leader and example of a team-first player and his performance in a situation like that shows you why. I was so proud of the way he came in and led us when we needed him."

Not only did the Rockets find a way to pull out a win over the high-scoring, previously unbeaten top seed that outscored its first 11 opponents 450-89, but they did so by outgaining the Lions. Raritan outrushed Lincoln 122-106 and also outgained the Lions through the air, 162-157, with each team running 60 plays.

"They have a lot of weapons," Thompson said. "We just had to fight through adversity, stick to the game plan and be more physical than them."

A foot injury to senior receiver and Iowa recruit Frank Darby set Lincoln's offense back. The Lions' leading receiver injured himself in the first quarter and tried to play through it, but managed just one catch after the injury and was visibly limping for the time he did make it onto the field. Darby finished with four catches for 28 yards.

Raritan's first championship in 11 years comes just three seasons after the program went 0-10 in 2012 in Petruzzi's third year as the head coach. After losing to eventual sectional champion Matawan, 27-6, in last year's Central Jersey Group III opening round, Raritan opened this season 3-0 only to lose its next five games.

Once the postseason began, Raritan turned the tide by beating a Point Boro team that beat the Rockets during the regular season, followed by a resounding win at No. 2 Delaware Valley to set up a showdown with Lincoln.

"It's absolutely unbelievable and I'm just glad we sent the seniors off with a ring," Thompson said.

"It's so surreal," Pasquin said. "Starting from the beginning of the season, it's just a goal. We worked very hard, fought and lifted and ran at 6:30 in the morning. Anything you could think of, we did it and it all led up to this point."

 

Box Score

Raritan 28, Lincoln 26

Raritan Lincoln
First Downs 17 14
Rushes-Yards 40-122 31-106
Passing 10-20-0 15-29-1
Passing Yards 162 157
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-Yards 6-50 2-15

 

1 2 3 4 F
Raritan (7-5) 7 0 14 7 28
Lincoln (11-1) 6 0 8 12 26

 

Scoring Summary

R – Derek Ernst 9-yard run (Gavin Toth kick)

L – Kamani Addison 19-yard run (run failed)

R – Derek Ernst 33-yard run (Toth kick)

R – Nick Pasquin 35-yard interception return (Toth kick)

L – Kamani Addison 38-yard run (Jason Harrison run)

L – Zymire Gordon 3-yard run (pass failed)

L – Jason Harrison 50-yard pass from Zymire Gordon (pass failed)

R – Nick Pasquin 11-yard pass from Marc Carnivale (Toth kick)

 

Individual Statistics

Rushing: (R) Derek Ernst 34-136, Nick Pasquin 2-3, Marc Carnivale 2-(-14), Jon Rodriguez 1-(-1); (L) Kamani Addison 16-109, Ronnie Young 3-7, Zymire Gordon 9-6, Jason Harrison 2-(-6), Ethan Zayas 1-(-10)

Passing: (R) Marc Carnivale 8-18-0-106, Jon Rodriguez 2-2-0-56; (L) Zymire Gordon 15-29-1-157

Receiving: (R) Nick Pasquin 4-79, Jordan Smith 3-59, Jahciere Jones 2-27, Derek Ernst 1-(-3); (L) Frank Darby 4-28, Jason Harrison 5-62, Nyeem Riley 1-8, Ethan Zayas 1-13, Keishawn Jones 2-5, Nat Witherspoon 1-10, Kareem Gaulden 1-32

Interceptions: Nick Pasquin 1-35