NEPTUNE - Following a 1-2 start in which its run defense was battered by a pair of high-caliber opponents, Neptune made a switch to a new alignment that has unleashed the Scarlet Fliers' athleticism and allowed them to gobble up several of the Shore Conference's top running backs during a six-game winning streak.

The latest example was a 21-7 win in the Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals over fifth-seeded Freehold Boro on Saturday at Memorial Athletic Complex in which the fourth-seeded Scarlet Fliers (7-2) bottled up 1,300-yard rusher Josh Dixon, holding him to 67 yards on 23 carries and limiting the Colonials (7-3) to 161 total yards. While the offense sputtered at times, the defense was rock solid to set up a rematch at top-seeded Middletown South, which beat Neptune 41-0 earlier this season, in the semifinals.

The Neptune defense swarmed Freehold Boro standout Josh Dixon, holding him to 67 yards rushing in a 21-7 win in Central Jersey Group IV. (Photo by Scott Stump)

"We do rely on our defense, which comes up with big plays when we need them and we're struggling on offense,'' said senior defensive lineman Andrew Holland-Samuels, who continued a stellar season with 9 tackles, a sack and a hit for a loss. "Our intensity is better, and everyone is doing the right thing and trusting each other."

The Scarlet Fliers started the season in the 3-3-5 stack, but after struggling against the run in blowout losses to Red Bank Catholic and Middletown South, defensive coordinator Jeremy Balina pivoted to more 4-3 and 4-4 looks to shore up the run defense and take advantage of the athleticism of senior defensive end O'Shane Curate. He also moved 6-foot-6 junior Isaiah Calhoun to cornerback and moved standout senior Royal Moore from corner to safety, where he has been strong in run support.

"Even if we're struggling putting up points, we can always count on our defense to keep the game close,'' said Calhoun, who had a pass break-up and a tackle for a loss. "We practice defense every day really hard, and when it comes to the games, it pays off. Our changes strengthened the defense, and it's been working."

Neptune's signature game was holding the Shore Conference's leading rusher, Long Branch senior Dahmiere Willis (2,112 yards) to 17 yards in a 27-0 win. While Curate was not in the lineup on Saturday because of an ankle injury, according to Balina, the defense still did the job against Freehold's option game. Neptune limited the Colonials to 90 yards rushing on 40 attempts, including only 26 yards on 17 attempts in the second half, and has only allowed seven total points in its last four games.

Neptune senior Cameron Calderon delivered a booming hit to force an incompletion and a punt on the game's opening possession to set the tone, and the Scarlet Fliers never looked back.

"We had to be aggressive up front,'' Holland-Samuels said. "With my cousin O'Shane Curate unable to play, I had to step up for him and be big up front, and I think I held it down."

Neptune senior quarterback Royal Moore ran for one touchdown and threw for another to help the Scarlet Fliers advance to the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Both teams scored all of their points in the first half, as Neptune took a 7-0 lead with 5:20 left in the first quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run by Moore that was set up by a 49-yard burst by senior Savior King on fourth-and-inches.

Freehold answered with a 12-play, 67-yard drive aided by a pair of offsides calls against the Neptune defense that kept the drive alive for junior quarterback Jake Curry to hit Bailey Indursky with a 14-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first quarter to tie the game at seven.

Neptune came right back with a 10-play, 58-yard drive capped by a seven-yard touchdown run by senior running back Jaree Parrish that made it 14-7 after the second of senior kicker Hunter Daly's three extra points on the day with 7:07 left in the second quarter. After the teams traded possessions, Neptune had one more opportunity before halftime thanks to a 10-yard punt that gave them the ball at Freehold's 29-yard line. On the first play, Moore hit Calhoun for a 29-yard score and a 21-7 lead with 19.3 seconds left in the half.

That was the way it would stay until the end, as Neptune's defense came up with one big stop after another in the second half to compensate for an offense that was limited to 81 total yards by the Colonials. Freehold drove to Neptune's 17-yard line on its opening possession of the third quarter, but senior linebacker Mi'jaut Berry pounced on a fumble to kill the drive.

"This defense has been a big change for us,'' Berry said. "It's been working out great."

After Freehold forced a three-and-out and again drove into the red zone, Neptune stopped Dixon a yard short of a first down on fourth-and-3 at the Neptune 11-yard line to snuff out another opportunity. The Colonials never threatened again, getting stopped on downs two more times, to set up a rematch between Neptune and a Middletown South team that has beaten them nine straight times since 1998.

"I feel like we have a chance this time,'' Calhoun said. "The first time we played Midd. South, we didn't have everybody, but I think now we're a solid team. We're going to play like a family next week, and we're going to come out with the 'W.'''

"I think they don't know what's coming,'' Holland-Samuels said. "I think we're going to give them what they deserve and what we should've given them the first time."

Moore, who transferred from Ocean during the offseason, was not in the lineup in the 41-0 loss because he was sitting out due to the NJSIAA transfer rule. He will be at quarterback and safety at "The Swamp" on Friday night. He knows the Scarlet Fliers have to clean up the sloppiness on offense against an Eagles team that has already posted a school-record six shutouts this season, and they have to be more disciplined defensively after jumping offsides five times on Saturday.

"I'm proud that we won today, but I'm not proud of this game at all,'' Moore said. "Midd. South is a really good team, and we have to be on all cylinders when we play them."


Box score

Neptune 21, Freehold Boro 7

.                             N                F

First downs           8                11

Rushes-yards   35-171         40-90

Passing             5-10-1          6-13-0

Passing yards     71                 71

Penalties            10-72            2-17

Fumbles-lost       0-0                3-1

Freehold (7-3) 7  0  0  0  - 7

Neptune (7-2) 7  14  0  0 - 21

Scoring summary:

N: Moore 5-yard run (Daly kick).

F: Indursky 14-yard pass from Curry (Curcio kick).

N: Parrish 7-yard run (Daly kick).

N: Calhoun 29-yard pass from Moore (Daly kick).

Individual statistics

Rushing - N: Parrish 15-38, Moore 11-42, King 9-91. F: Dixon 23-67, Curry 17-23.

Passing - N: Moore 5-10-1 71. F: Curry 6-12-0 71, Worthy 0-1-0 0.

Receiving - N: Alston 1-12, Calhoun 1-29, Ellington 2-26, Calderon 1-4. F: Indursky 1-14, Curcio 3-55, Dixon 2-2.

Interceptions - F: Smith-Rush 1-0.