Red Bank surges past Allentown in second half to reach CJ-3 semifinals
LITTLE SILVER – Red Bank has a great running game at the heart of its big-play offense and also fields an underrated defensive unit. The Bucs’ best trait, however, may be their ability to persevere through tough moments and find a way – any way – to come away with a victory.
Friday night’s first-round playoff game showcased exactly that.
After a sluggish first half and a rocky start to the third quarter, Red Bank kicked it into gear and zoomed past Allentown, 30-13, in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Junior running back Makai Mickens ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns and senior Nigel Mitchell added 114 yards rushing and a touchdown along with a touchdown catch.
Red Bank’s defense buckled down after falling behind early in the second half and also had some key stops deep in its own end in the first half. Senior defensive back Robbie DeMarco had a pair of interceptions, Mickens also intercepted a pass and senior linebacker Colin Chatto recorded a sack and a tackle for loss.
Third-seeded Red Bank will next face second-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven in the state sectional semifinals.
“It definitely helps having previous games like Holmdel (28-26 win) and Ocean (23-13 win) where it’s been close the entire game or we’ve been down at halftime and we had to come back,” Chatto said. “Once we got into halftime we took a deep breath and said let’s play our best half of the year.”
“We keep fighting,” Mickens said. “Unlike last year we don’t get down on bad plays. We just try to make a big play on the next play on both sides of the ball.”
Red Bank (7-1) couldn’t have had a better start to the game. Nick Ferrogine fielded a squib kick and brought it into Allentown territory, and on the first offensive play of the game Mitchell took a direct snap and broke a 46-yard touchdown run for a quick 7-0 lead.
“I just came back from a concussion and didn’t get to play in the last game, so now I’m back and I have to go as hard as I can,” Mitchell said. “I saw that hole and it was wide open. I hit the cutback and that was it.”
Allentown responded later in the first quarter with a 12-play, 56-yard drive to tie the game. The Redbirds' lightning-quick, up-tempo offense found its groove with quarterback Dan Merkel and running back Rashaad Emory executing the read-option and Emory finished off the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
Penalties nuked Red Bank’s next possession and Allentown then took over and marched down to the Bucs’ 1-yard line, keyed by a 23-yard run by Merkel. A 6-yard run by Merkel brought up third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and the way Allentown had been running the ball it seemed inevitable the Redbirds were going to take the lead. But on third down, Red Bank stuffed Emory for a 2-yard loss to bring up fourth down. Allentown elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, and Ferrogine, Mickens and Jack Niesz combined to stop Emory inches from the goal line for a clutch hold that turned the ball over on downs.
“We were really getting driven on during that drive. They were hitting big plays and they were grinding it out in the run game,” Chatto said. “We just said collectively as a team, ‘Let’s buckle down and take it one play at a time.' When you’re inside your 10-yard line it’s four plays and done.”
“We had to put up or shut up,” Mickens said.
Red Bank’s defense came through again deep in its own territory after Allentown started a drive at the Bucs’ 34-yard line. The Redbirds got one first down but that was it, and a 33-yard field goal attempt was no good to keep the game tied, 7-7.
Red Bank’s offense continued its struggles and went three-and-out, punting the ball back to Allentown with 3:22 to play in the first half. A 42-yard catch by Chris McCrea put the ball at the 19-yard line but Red Bank dug in yet again to force fourth down. On fourth-and-2 from the 12-yard line, Merkel’s pass fell incomplete and Red Bank was able to get into the locker room all square with Allentown.
Red Bank was glad to hit the reset button and take the field in the third quarter, but Allentown finally broke through to take a 13-7 lead. A 76-yard catch by Ramsey Ben Flah put the ball at the 1-yard line, and Emory plunged in on second down to put the Redbirds in front.
What transpired next was – along with the fourth-and-goal stop in the first half – the turning point of the game for Red Bank. The Bucs responded immediately with a 58-yard scoring drive to retake the lead, and they were off and running from there.
Mitchell had a 16-yard run to move the ball to the Allentown 35-yard line, Mickens converted a third-and-8 with a nine-yard run and Niesz moved the chains with a five-yard catch on third-and-4. Two plays later, Chamberlain lofted a pass to the left-front corner of the end zone where Mitchell made a great 14-yard touchdown catch. Chris Maida’s extra point was true, giving the Bucs a 14-13 lead.
Allentown’s big-play passing game made another play on the ensuing drive when Merkel connected with McCrea for 40 yards down to the Red Bank 20-yard line. The Bucs’ defense came through with another clutch play, this time with an interception and 40-plus-yard return by DeMarco. A penalty negated some of the return yards, but the Bucs had slipped another punch by Allentown.
The Bucs now had the ball on the Allentown 46-yard line with a chance to extend their lead. Three running plays moved the chains to the 28-yard line, but a pass play for negative yards and an incompletion brought up fourth-and-7 from the 30-yard line. Red Bank lined up to punt but executed a fake, and Ferrogine was able to find room on the left side for a 12-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, Mickens darted through a hole up the middle for a 16-yard touchdown run and a 21-13 Red Bank lead.
The momentum swung all the way to Red Bank’s side a few plays later. Mickens intercepted Merkel’s pass deep down the middle of the field, then ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run to extend Red Bank’s lead to 28-13 early in the fourth quarter.
Allentown then mishandled the kickoff and started its next possession at its own 10-yard line. The Bucs forced a punt and the snap went over the punter's head and through the end zone for a safety, making it 30-13 with 10:03 to play.
DeMarco snared his second interception of the game late in the fourth quarter to put the punctuation mark on a splendid second-half performance. Red Bank scored 23 unanswered points to end the game and the only plays of significance the defense surrendered were two long pass plays. Merkel hit 205 yards passing early in the third quarter but was 0-for-7 with three interceptions over the final 22:46 of the game.
“We came out with fire in the second half; we’re a second-half team,” Mitchell said. “No matter what happens, we come out with the same intensity and we treat every play like it’s our last one.”
Red Bank was 2-8 last season, but the seeds for a dramatic turnaround in 2018 were planted via a thrilling 21-20 overtime victory over Long Branch last Thanksgiving, one week before the Green Wave won the Central Jersey Group 4 championship. Now they’re rolling into the state sectional semifinals with their only loss coming to top-ranked Red Bank Catholic.
“We saw this in the summertime,” Mickens said. “Nobody believed in us but we did, and that’s all that mattered.”
Now it’s a date with rival Rumson-Fair Haven. The two schools are separated by just a few miles, and when the teams play in any sport, The Battle of Ridge Road takes center stage. The two teams met in the 2015 Central Jersey Group 3 final with Rumson winning, 21-0, to end Red Bank’s dream of an undefeated championship season. This group of Bucs is out for some revenge.
“We all know what happened in 2015 so that’s definitely in the back of our heads,” Chatto said. “We want to get revenge on them and really play for our alumni. Coach (Nick) Giglio talks about how everyone is texting him and wishing us luck. This is the third time we’ve been in the playoffs in 15 years, so we’re really taking this to heart and taking a lot of pride in these games.”
Red Bank 30, Allentown 13
|Red Bank (7-1)||7||0||14||9||30|
RB – Nigel Mitchell 46-yard run (Chris Maida kick)
A – Rashaad Emory 4-yard run (Chris McCrea kick)
A – Rashaad Emory 1-yard run (kick failed)
RB – Nigel Mitchell 14-yard pass from Jack Chamberlain (Chris Maida kick)
RB – Makai Mickens 16-yard run (Chris Maida kick)
RB – Makai Mickens 70-yard run (Chris Maida kick)
RB – Safety, Allentown snap on punt goes through the end zone
RUSHING – A: Dan Merkel 17-93, Rashaad Emory 24-76; RB: Makai Mickens 15-123, Nigel Mitchell 14-114, David Hicks 8-36, Nick Ferrogine 1-12, Jack Chamberlain 3-6.
PASSING – A: Dan Merkel 7-20-3 205; RB: Jack Chamberlain 5-10-0 7.
RECEIVING – A: Chris McCrea 3-110, Ramsey Ben Flah 2-91, Peter Pinto 1-13, Jha’Quel Brown 1-1; RB: Jack Niesz 3-9, Nigel Mitchell 1-4, Makai Mickens 1-(-6).
INTERCEPTIONS – RB: Robbie DeMarco 2-20, Makai Mickens 1-0.