Stifling Defense, 4 TDs by Devon Spann Lead Matawan into CJ Group III Semifinals
HAZLET - When Matawan head coach John Kaye decided to throw talented freshman George "L.C." Pearson into the fire as the starting quarterback four games into the season, he knew it would take a little while for everything to mesh for the Huskies.
At the most crucial part of the season, the pieces are coming together as the fifth-seeded Huskies have now won four of their last five after a 27-6 victory over fourth-seeded Raritan at Joseph DeVirgilio Field on Friday night that propelled them into the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals. Pearson, who is the nephew of former Dallas Cowboys great and South River star Drew Pearson, went 11-for-19 for 201 yards passing, while the defense held the Rockets (4-5) to 164 total yards, including only 15 yards and zero first downs in the second half.
"We're playing some young kids and it took some time,'' Kaye said. "I've got a ninth-grade quarterback, I got two sophomore tackles, and it takes time to come together. We feel like we're getting better, we're working real hard in practice, and we're playing well at the right time."
The Huskies (6-4) will now host eighth-seeded Ocean, which stunned defending champion and No. 1 seed Hopewell Valley 19-14 on Friday night, in the semifinals.
"We just picked up our tempo in practice, and we just know what we have to do to come out in game time,'' Pearson said about his team's continued improvement. "I feel a lot more comfortable with the plays, I know everything well. I'm ready to go now."
Pearson is also closing in on a small piece of history as Middletown North sophomore Donald Glenn is believed to have set the Shore Conference record for passing yards by a freshman last season with 1,557, and Pearson now has 1,495 with at least one game to go.
Pearson's passing was complemented by senior running back Devon Spann, who ran for 95 yards and a career-high four touchdowns on 22 carries. It helped Matawan beat Raritan for the second time this season and the sixth straight time dating back to 2009.
"(The running game) takes the pressure off me a little bit, and teams are confused because they don't know what we're going to do next,'' Pearson said.
"It's hard to stop us if we can run the ball and pass,'' Spann said.
The Huskies looked to establish the run from the outset as Spann carried the ball four times for 34 yards during a seven-play, 62-yard drive to open the game that ended with his 2-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
"The line did great today,'' Spann said. "That was all the line."
"We had been throwing the ball like 25-30 times a game, and we were pretty good at it, but at the end of the day, the chances of winning a championship in December throwing the ball 35 times - it's hard,'' Kaye said. "We knew we had to establish the run a little better...and we've been pretty successful with it."
Raritan appeared ready to immediately answer Spann's score when it marched 56 yards to Matawan's 10-yard line, but junior linebacker Isaiah Phillip led the charge to stuff Raritan standout tailback Derek Ernst for no gain on fourth-and-1 to kill the drive. However, Raritan got it right back three plays later when sophomore defensive end Sean Agar recovered a fumble at Matawan's 10-yard line.
Three plays later, Ernst plowed in from a yard out to cut it to 7-6 after the extra point was no good with two minutes left in the first quarter. Matawan answered with a seven-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Spann for a 14-6 lead with 9:46 left in the second quarter that remained that way until halftime.
Matawan's swarming defense set the tone from the outset in the third quarter by forcing a three-and-out by the Rockets. The offense then marched 67 yards in 13 plays, with Pearson hitting senior tight end Matt Liebowitz for a 41-yard gain, then shrugging off a defender and finding senior wide receiver Justin Ferrara for a 15-yard gain on fourth-and-13 to keep the drive alive, and then throwing it to Ferrara again for a 16-yard gain that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Spann to push the lead to 21-6 with 4:22 left in the third quarter.
"He's a great target,'' Pearson said about Ferrara, who had five catches for 79 yards. "If I'm in a bad situation, I can go to him."
The standout linebacker tandem of junior Aliem Shaw and Phillip then combined to squash Raritan's ensuing drive, as Shaw hit senior quarterback Riley Sullivan for a 4-yard loss and then pressured him into an incompletion, and then Phillip stuffed Ernst for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 to get the ball back. Ernst finished with 100 yards rushing on 13 carries, but only had 19 yards rushing in the second half after burning the Huskies for 185 yards and three scores in their first meeting of the season.
"We had to set an edge,'' Kaye said about slowing down Ernst. "The one time he just ran down the sideline, and we didn't set an edge. We had some misalignments and we got through that early. Once we got aligned right and got ahead a little bit, it's harder to be consistent and run the football like they wanted to do."
The Huskies then put the finishing touches on the win with an eight-play, 46-yard drive highlighted by a 17-yard catch by Ferrara that ended with Spann's fourth touchdown from two yards out for a 27-6 lead with 10:26 left in the game. The defense took it from there, with Liebowitz, Phillip and Shaw each registering sacks to finish on a high note.
Next up is an underdog Ocean team coming off a huge win. Matawan is trying to win its first state title since 2011 and its third in the last six seasons. A win over the Spartans could potentially mean a rematch in the final with second-seeded Long Branch, which beat the Huskies 40-28 during the regular season.
"Now we're starting to play like we should've when we started,'' Spann said. "We're all working harder now."
Matawan 27, Raritan 6
. R M
First downs 5 17
Rushes-yards 24-117 36-142
Passing 7-13-0 11-19-0
Passing yards 47 201
Penalties 4-21 8-59
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Matawan (6-4) 7 7 7 6 - 27
Raritan (4-5) 6 0 0 0 - 6
M: Spann 2-yard run (Elliot kick).
R: Ernst 1-yard run (kick failed).
M: Spann 1-yard run (Elliot kick).
M: Spann 1-yard run (Elliot kick).
M: Spann 2-yard run (kick failed).
Rushing - R: Ernst 13-100, Sullivan 11-17. M: Spann 22-95, Rogers 1-11, J. Pierce 4-13, Caesar 2-7, Pearson 2-5, Ramcheran 1-(-3), Midtlyng 4-14.
Passing - R: Sullivan 7-13-0 47, Ernst 0-1-0 0. M: Pearson 11-19-1 201, J. Pierce 0-1-0 0.
Receiving - R: Ernst 3-7, Pasquin 3-27, Smith 1-13. M: Ferrara 5-79, Ramcheran 2-10, Rogers 3-71, Liebowitz 1-41.
Interceptions - R: Jones 1-0.