Photo gallery by Dave Thorne

OCEAN TOWNSHIP – Whether he was talking about his teammates, his own play, or the sensational all-around game by senior wide receiver/safety Sadiq Palmer, Red Bank junior defensive back Jalen Willis summed up a crucial reason why the Bucs are heading to their first NJSIAA sectional final in 12 years.

“I think we just come up big when we need it,’’ Willis said. “When the lights are the brightest, that's when we make plays."

Red Bank senior quarterback Jack Navitsky celebrates the Bucs' first trip to a state final since 2003. (Photo by Sport Shots WLB)

A huge fourth-quarter interception by Willis set up the last of Palmer’s three touchdowns in the win as the third-seeded Bucs knocked off second-seeded Ocean 21-14 at Carelli Field on Friday night to reach their first Central Jersey Group III final since losing to Middletown South in 2003. Ocean had more yards (349-241) and more first downs (15-9), but Red Bank made the plays at the critical junctures while also winning the turnover battle.

Red Bank (10-0), which beat the Spartans (8-2) for the second time this season, will play Rumson-Fair Haven in a state final for the first time in the long history of their “Battle of Ridge Road” rivalry in search of the Bucs' first state title in 40 years. Red Bank will face the Bulldogs, who are gunning for their third straight state title, on the first weekend of December at a time and neutral site to be determined.

Palmer, a Syracuse recruit, finished with 53 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 11 carries, caught three passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, and had 12 tackles, a huge stop on fourth down and an interception at safety.

"Sadiq is someone who obviously is a special player, and you need those guys to make big plays in a game like this, and he did,'' head coach Nick Giglio said.

“We love doubters,’’ Palmer said. “We've been doubted since the preseason. That just makes us go even harder.”

Red Bank senior Sadiq Palmer (#6) scored all three touchdowns for the Bucs in the win over Ocean. (Photo by Dave Thorne)

The teams were deadlocked at 14 going into the fourth quarter before Willis made the play that swung things in Red Bank’s favor for good. He jumped the route on a screen pass, registering the Bucs’ third interception of the game against Ocean junior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who threw for 270 yards and a touchdown in the loss. Willis returned it to Ocean’s 16-yard line, and three plays later, Palmer fought his way into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead with 9:24 left in the game.

“The screen was pretty obvious to see,’’ Willis said. “They did it a couple of times before in the game, and the quarterback didn't throw it because he saw me coming up for it and he saw it wasn't there. I don't know why that time he thought it was going to be there. I was just waiting for it like I had been the whole game. Maybe I guess I baited him a little.”

After the teams traded possessions, Ocean had one last shot to tie it when the Spartans got the ball back at their own 24-yard line with 2:08 remaining and one timeout. Pickett hit junior wideout Joey Aldarelli, who was outstanding with 10 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown, with a 31-yard pass on first down to immediately move into Red Bank territory.

Syracuse recruit Sadiq Palmer was outstanding with three touchdowns and 12 tackles on defense. (Photo by Dave Thorne)

However, the Bucs pressured Pickett into three straight incompletions to set up fourth-and-10, where Red Bank stopped Aldarelli after a six-yard gain with 1:34 remaining to all but seal the win. Red Bank’s front four of senior defensive end Sean Naiman, the rotation of defensive ends Jack Haytaian and Michael Wolff, and defensive tackles Zymere Ross and Righteon Johnson, consistently flushed Pickett out of the pocket for a majority of the game.

“Our line was getting a lot of pressure,’’ Palmer said. “They were making (Pickett) force throws he didn't want to because he didn't have the time to relax.”

“We're very fortunate in that our front four can provide a pass rush when needed so that we don't have to bring extra rushers,’’ Giglio said.

Ocean wideout Joey Aldarelli (in red) had 10 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown in the loss. (Photo by Dave Thorne)

Red Bank, whose offensive coordinator and offensive line coach are former Ocean stars Cory Giddings and Shane Bigelow, then made sure Ocean wouldn’t have any last-gasp attempt to tie it by running out the clock when Palmer galloped for a 16-yard gain to wrap up the victory.

“From the beginning of the season people doubted us,’’ senior quarterback Jack Navitsky said. “They doubted we were going to beat RBC, they doubted we were going to beat some other teams, then they said we couldn't beat this Ocean team twice. Our mindset every week is that we have to prove something.”

A big inspiration has been regular meetings with members of the 1975 championship team, who played one of the legendary championship games in state history with a 46-44 win over Hightstown in Central Jersey Group II. No team in Red Bank history has ever gone 12-0, which is two wins away for this year’s squad.

“It's inspired us very much,’’ Palmer said. “We want to do what they did and be even better than that.”

“It's been a connection we have,’’ Giglio said. “That team wants us to win, and that's the special part. They want this to happen, and the support is tremendous.”

The Bucs never trailed in the game, as they took a 7-0 first-quarter lead when they decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 on their second possession. Navitsky found Palmer over the middle and he juked his way for a 33-yard touchdown with 4:40 left in the period. Ocean had an immediate answer, going 70 yards in only five plays, keyed by a 55-yard catch by Aldarelli, to tie the game on an 11-yard touchdown run by senior Tyler Thompson.

Red Bank came right back with a five-play, 53-yard scoring drive highlighted by a 39-yard pass from Navitsky to senior Matt Reardon that set up a three-yard touchdown run by Palmer for a 14-7 lead with 30.3 seconds left in the first quarter. That’s the way the score remained at the half, as Red Bank’s defense did a great job of digging in when Ocean reached the red zone. Palmer thwarted one second-quarter drive with an interception, and then senior linebacker Brian Fagan came up with an interception at the goal line with 2:36 left in the half after Reardon made an outstanding play to bat a tipped pass behind his head into Fagan’s hands.

Ocean roared out of halftime to tie the game on the opening drive with a seven-play, 58-yard march that culminated in a 30-yard touchdown strike from Pickett to Aldarelli with 8:33 remaining to knot it up at 14.

A pair of interceptions by Ocean senior safety Greyson Stoothoff killed Red Bank’s next two drives, while a stop for no gain on fourth-and-1 by Palmer and Naiman at midfield stuffed an Ocean possession. That kept the game tied before Willis made his crucial interception to ultimately send the Bucs to the victory.

Red Bank now has two championship games in a row. It will play longtime rival Long Branch on Thanksgiving in a bid to lock up the outright Class B North title after having already clinched at least a tie for its first division crown since winning Class C in 1977 under current Lacey head coach Lou Vircillo. Then it will be on to the big one, as the Bucs look to end a 40-year drought at the expense of the rival right up the road.

“This is something I've been waiting for all my life,’’ junior linebacker Chris Outterbridge said. “I can't wait.’’

Box score

Red Bank 21, Ocean 14

.                                      R                    0

First downs                    9                   15

Rushes-yards             31-124          29-79

Passing                       6-13-2          20-29-3

Passing yards              117               270

Penalties                      4-24              4-25

Fumbles-lost                 0-0                0-0

Red Bank (10-0)   14   0   0    7   - 21

Ocean (8-2)            7   0    7   0   -  14

Scoring summary: 

R: Palmer 33-yard pass from Navitsky (O'Connor kick).

O: Thompson 11-yard run (Fisher kick).

R: Palmer 3-yard run (O'Connor kick).

O: Aldarelli 30-yard pass from Pickett (Fisher kick).

R: Palmer 5-yard run (O'Connor kick).

Individual statistics

Rushing - O: Thompson 19-72, Pickett 10-7. R: Godsey 13-67, Navitsky 7-4, Palmer 11-53.

Passing - O: Pickett 20-29-3 270. R: Navitsky 6-13-2 117.

Receiving - O: Aldarelli 10-182, Stoothoff 6-35, Thompson 2-16, Dean 1-14, Qadiri 1-23. R: Palmer 3-60, Godsey 1-2, Reardon 2-55.

Interceptions - O: Stoothoff 2-15. R: Palmer 1-0, Willis 1-20, Fagan 1-8.