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MANALAPAN - It speaks to the potential of this year's Manalapan team that the Braves can commit 11 penalties, lose their star tailback to an ankle injury in the first quarter, and still beat a top-five team in the Shore Conference by two touchdowns.

The defense registered a second-half shutout and junior tailback Imamu Mayfield ran for a career-high 109 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in relief of starter Tyler Leonetti as the No. 2 Braves won a showdown of unbeatens with No. 4 Middletown South, 29-14, for their 19th straight divisional win on Friday night. The Braves (3-0, 3-0) weathered a hail of penalties and the injury to Leonetti by going to their bread-and-butter - pounding opponents with the run game and stopping the opposing running attack.

Junior running back Imamu Mayfield stepped in for injured starter Tyler Leonetti and ran for a career-high 109 yards and a touchdown to help Manalapan win a battle of unbeatens, 29-14, over Middletown South. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

"We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of nonsense mistakes that we shouldn't have made,'' said senior tight end/noseguard R.J. Krause. "It still shows that we can just pound and pound and pound. That's what we're going to have to do. That's what Manalapan football is, and we're just going to pound it, and pound it out. In the end, that's how we finished it."

Manalapan ran for 218 yards, while limiting the Eagles (2-1, 1-1) to 46 yards rushing on 29 attempts, including minus-one yard in the second half, to become the rare team to beat Middletown South four straight times.

"The penalties  were hard on us because that was all our fault,'' said senior safety Anthony Barone, who had three pass break-ups. "We had to face adversity, but we took the pressure."

Another reason Manalapan was able to overcome its miscues was because of its explosive offensive threats who can change the game on one play. Leonetti ripped off a 57-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in the game for a 7-0 lead before spraining his ankle following a 3-yard catch on Manalapan's next series.

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Middletown South tied it at seven with a 14-play, 74-yard drive in which a personal foul and a pass interference penalty on the Braves helped the Eagles finish it off with a 4-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Kyle Brey to junior tight end Pat Crowe with 6:02 left in the second quarter.

"I told them all those mistakes are unacceptable,'' Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri said. "I don't know how many drives were kept alive by stupid penalties. Out of the eight penalties we had in the first half, most of them were on defense, and giving them first downs."

The Braves answered with their second big play of the game when junior John Cheung, part of their deep stable of running backs, returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 5:50 left in the half. The Eagles came right back to tie it up again when Brey took a deep shot down the right sideline to senior wideout Andrew Wisialko, who eluded multiple defenders with a great run after the catch to polish off a 51-yard touchdown only 43 seconds after Cheung's score.

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The Braves took the lead for good with a four-play, 59-yard drive in which they took advantage of a penalty by the Eagles. An interception was wiped out by a pass interference call, and on the next play, junior quarterback Dan Anerella found Rutgers recruit Saeed Blacknall over the middle. He shrugged off three defenders and sped to the corner of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead that Manalapan took into halftime.

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"That's what happens when you have that kind of kid on the field,'' Gurrieri said. "He's a home run hitter. He can take it to the house at any given moment."

The teams were scoreless in the third quarter, with Manalapan's defense making a solid stand when Middletown South defensive back Nolan Pereless returned an interception to the Braves' 11-yard line. A false start and a personal foul made it second-and-30 from the 31-yard line, and senior cornerback Chris Cruz picked off a pass by Brey to end the threat.

Manalapan seized that momentum to mount a nine-play, 74-yard drive in which its offensive line began to exert its will to pave the way for Mayfield, who had five carries for 74 yards on the drive.

"Come fourth quarter, we just looked at each other and were like, 'This is it, Manalapan football, we've got to pound it down their throats,''' Krause said. "We saw in their face at the end of the game that they were tired. They had a lot of people going both ways, so we knew right away we had to come after them and just finish the job."

"We're actually further ahead than  I thought we could be up front,'' Gurrieri said. "If we want to take the air out of the ball and play Manalapan football, we can. I think we got a little too cute in the first half trying to figure out how to get the ball to Saeed, and then we just let the game dictate how we played."

Mayfield, who is a transfer from Freehold, gave the Braves a 27-14 lead with a 36-yard burst with 9:17 left in the game.

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"I knew that Tyler was a powerful running back, so I knew I had to play with composure and that's what I did,'' said Mayfield, who also plays linebacker. "I played a lot of varsity last year at Freehold, and just had to get used to the fast pace again at running back."

"He did a great job'' Gurrieri said. "We're loaded with running backs. They all have the mantra of 'next man in.'''

The Braves then pushed the lead to 29-14 on Middletown South's next possession when Krause came roaring up the middle and sacked Brey for a 13-yard loss in the end zone for a safety. It was one of three second-half sacks for Manalapan's defense.

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"Really it was more about stopping the run, and then they had to throw the ball,'' Gurrieri said. "Once they had to throw the ball, we could go get 'em. When they were in second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, you get that 50-50 option, but we came out in the second half and shut the run down and made them have to throw the ball."

The secondary also adjusted after Brey threw for 106 of his 178 yards in the first half.

"In the first half they were beating us on the screen play, so we helped out with the safety attacking that first and helping the corner over the top,'' Barone said. "We also helped out with the outside linebackers in coverage more. Last year we got beat a couple times by No. 45 (Tayler Hendrickson), the tight end, and we know he's a great athlete so we tried to make adjustments around him. If we could stop him, we could hopefully stop the rest of the team."

The Braves have not lost a game in Class A North since being realigned into the division in 2010, and the main obstacle to a fourth straight crown appears to be unbeaten Colts Neck. After beating a quality team despite all the mistakes and a key injury, they know there is still potential to improve as they chase the program's elusive first NJSIAA title after losing in the finals the past two seasons.

"If it wasn't for the penalties, this would've been a whole different game,'' Barone said. "We know that if we fix all of that, the sky is the limit."

Box score

Manalapan 29, Middletown South 14

.                                       Man                MS

First downs                    13                   13

Rushes-yards             32-218            29-46

Passing                         6-11-1          17-32-1

Passing yards                53                 178

Penalties                     11-93                7-65

Fumbles-lost                1-0                   4-0

Middletown South (2-1, 1-1)      0  14  0  0 - 14

Manalapan (3-0, 3-0)                7   14   0  8 - 29

Scoring summary:

Man: Leonetti 57-yard run (Caggiano kick)

MS: Crowe 4-yard pass from Brey (Mosquera kick).

Man: Cheung 75-yard kickoff return (Caggiano kick).

MS: Wisialko 51-yard pass from Brey (Mosquera kick).

Man: Blacknall 31-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

Man: Mayfield 36-yard run (run failed).

Man: Krause tackled Brey in end zone for safety

Individual statistics

Rushing - Man: Leonetti 4-65, Blacknall 1-(-5), Lombana 6-11, Mayfield 16-109, McCourt 5-38. MS: O'Connell 14-59, Brey 11-(-27), N. Pereless 1-1, Concepcion 3-13.

Passing - Man: Lombana 2-3-0 7, Anerella 4-8-1 46. MS: Brey 17-32-1 178.

Receiving - Man: Leonetti 1-3, Mayfield 1-9, Blacknall 3-42, Cruz 1-(-1). MS: N. Pereless 8-85, S. Pereless 2-16, Wisialko 4-69, Crowe 1-4, Hendrickson 2-4.

Interceptions - MS: N. Pereless 1-19. Man: Cruz 1-5.