MIDDLETOWN - The home crowd at "The Swamp" was roaring, the ball rested on St. John Vianney's one-yard line, and the undefeated Lancers' 27-game unbeaten streak against Shore Conference competition looked like it was on life support late in the game against Middletown South on Friday night.

In other words, the St. John Vianney defense had them right where they wanted them.

Senior Chris Chukwuneke's tackle of Middletown South's Samson Dube on third-and-goal late in the game helped St. John Vianney pull out a three-point thriller.

That is just the type of challenge the No. 3 Lancers relish, and they showed it with a huge goal-line stand inside the final three minutes that ultimately propelled them to a thrilling 23-20 nondivisional win over the No. 4 Eagles.

Linebacker Johnny Buchanan and defensive end Nick Densieski stuffed Maxx Imsho for a one-yard loss on second down from the 1-yard line, and then senior safety Chris Chukwuneke dropped senior Samson Dube for a one-yard loss on third-and-goal. The Eagles elected to go for a game-tying, 20-yard field goal, and it was wide right to allow the Lancers (8-0) to walk away with their 28th straight victory against Shore Conference competition and a haul of power points in Non-Public Group III.

"It was really hard, but we knew we had the defense to stop them,'' Chukwuneke said. "With Micah (Clark) at the nose and Jamaal (Beaty) playing up there and the rest of our defensive line and Johnny Buchanan at middle linebacker, we knew we had the stuff to stop them at the goal line."

Clark, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman headed to Rutgers, blew up both plays near the goal line at the point of attack to allow the linebackers and Chukwuneke to get into the backfield and make huge stops.

"I just kept that mentality in my head that I have to blow the center up,'' Clark said. "If I can blow him back, that's the game."

Afterward, it was Clark thanking his teammates with tears streaming down his face. His mother, Lorraine Beaty, missed the game while undergoing her fourth back surgery at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune. She is one of the team's biggest fans and has been dealing with back issues that have hindered her ability to work, according to Clark. Head coach Derek Sininsky said in the postgame that the team will be giving her the game ball.

"I really had to focus on the field knowing that my mother was in the hospital,'' he said. "I knew I couldn't think about anything else. Knowing the rah-rah girl that she is, I know she wouldn't want me thinking about her in the hospital, she would want me to do my thing on the field.

"That whole time I was thinking, if I give up on this play, what would my mom think? If I give up on the next play, what would my mom think?"

"I told Micah, that's why you're a four-star recruit, that's why you're going to Rutgers,'' Chukwuneke said. "We have you at the nose to blow up the middle so do your job, and that's what he did. This one was for his mom."

The Lancers' defense, which entered the game second in the Shore in allowing 8.4 points per game, was also able to regroup quickly. That final possession by the Eagles (5-2) started at St. John Vianney's 4-yard line after Imsho returned an interception 41 yards to get the home crowd roaring.

"We put ourselves in a big hole to start off with, but we're a resilient group,'' Chukwuneke said. "We feel like we're always in the game no matter what the score is."

The goal-line stand made a 21-yard field goal by junior Will Forman with 10:27 left in the game stand up as the winning points. The Eagles made a goal-line stand of their own after a sensational, diving 37-yard catch by St. John Vianney wideout Sam East at the 6-yard line, stopping the Lancers on three straight plays to force the field goal.

Middletown South then came up with two straight turnovers on St. John Vianney's next two possessions on a night in which the defense had four takeaways. Both times, the Lancers' defense responded with clutch stops of its own.

Dube snatched an interception off a pass tipped by Imsho that put Middletown South in business down by three at its own 38-yard line. However, the drive stalled at the Lancers' 34 when Buchanan dropped Dube a yard short of the marker on fourth down with 3:57 left in the game.

The Lancers then decided to go for the jugular by throwing the ball. It backfired when Imsho registered the Eagles' third interception of the night and broke multiple tackles in running down to the 4-yard line with 2:51 left in the game, but St. John Vianney didn't flinch.

"Our kids are like good poker players,'' Sininsky said. "They don't show emotion, they don't worry about things."

The game was back-and-forth the entire way, with the Eagles striking first thanks to a wild play. Senior wide receiver Jeremy Joyce, who had 4 catches for 94 yards in the loss, snared a tipped pass from senior quarterback Aneesh Agrawal and then beat a defender for a 56-yard score and a 7-0 lead with 2:01 left in the first quarter.

St. John Vianney answered by showing its explosiveness on a third-and-24 play. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels found Chukwuneke over the middle and the Villanova recruit juked a defender and then outraced the Eagles for a 76-yard touchdown that tied it at 7 with 8:45 left in the second quarter.

After the Lancers' defense forced a three-and-out, St. John Vianney took its first lead with an eight-play, 40-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard run by Chukwuneke, who finished with 155 total yards. The Eagles came right back when Dube returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown with 1:24 left in the first half, but the Lancers took a 14-13 lead into the break after a missed extra point.

St. John Vianney had the Eagles on their heels to start the second half when defensive back A.J. Calabro stepped in front of a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive lineman J.P. Tarantino and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown on just the second play of the third quarter. The extra point was no good, keeping the Lancers' lead at 20-13.

Middletown South responded two possessions later with a 12-play, 50-yard drive that ended with Imsho plowing in from a yard out to help tie the game at 20 with 2:43 left in the third quarter.

That set up the final dogfight in the fourth quarter, with the Lancers sending the Eagles to their second straight loss after a 17-game winning streak with a goal-line stand they won't soon forget.

"After that interception, we knew we were faced with a challenge,'' Clark said. "We got in together and said, 'Let's keep the streak alive. Let's do it for our program, let's do it for each other, and we just got it done."

Box score

St. John Vianney 23, Middletown South 20

.                                     M            S

First downs                 11            12

Rushes-yards         36-85         31-68

Passing                   8-20-1        9-20-3

Passing yards         134             207

Fumbles-lost           0-0               1-1

Penalties                0-0                5-35

St. John Vianney (8-0)  0  14  6  3 - 23

Midd. South (5-2)           7   6  7  0  - 20

Scoring summary:

M: Joyce 56-yard pass from Agrawal (Kaldrovics kick).

S: Chukwuneke 76-yard pass from Daniels (Forman kick).

S: Chukwuneke 1-yard run (Forman kick).

M: Dube 89-yard kickoff return (kick failed).

S: Calabro 37-yard interception return (kick failed).

M: Imsho 1-yard run (Kaldrovics kick).

S: Forman 21-yard field goal.

Individual statistics

Rushing - M: Dube 13-46, Summey 3-0, Agrawal 4-(-7), Alessi 4-13, Imsho 11-33, Lewandowski 1-0. S: Chukwuneke 18-56, Daniels 7-5, Sterling 1-(-1), Buchanan 5-8.

Passing - M: Agrawal 8-20-1 134. S: Daniels: 9-20-3 207.

Receiving - M: Lewandowski 2-13, Joyce 4-94, Dube 1-7, Imsho 1-20. S: Chukwuneke 2-99, East 5-80, Sterling 1-17, Calabro 1-11.

Interceptions - M: Porter 1-0, Dube 1-5, Imsho 1-41. S: Calabro 1-37.

Email: stump@allshoremedia.com

Twitter: @Scott_Stump

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