Thanksgiving Football Picks, 11/27/13
It’s time for my annual rant against Thanksgiving games as the majority of the Shore Conference gets ready to wrap up the season.
In short, they have to go. They have become the primary roadblock to a legitimate playoff system that crowns Group champions rather than having 24 teams say they are state champions. The newest NJSIAA proposal to alter the playoff system, which is up for a vote by the NJSIAA membership on Dec. 2, still includes Thanksgiving games and simply starts the season earlier and ends it later.
While at this point I would even take this arrangement because it gets to Group champions, from what I am hearing anecdotally, it sounds like the latest NJSIAA proposal will be voted down. A primary reason is because athletic directors are leery of the change because the season would start on Labor Day weekend, before school has even started, and go an extra week into mid-December, angering the winter sports coaches who may be counting on football players. I can certainly sympathize with that. The selfish part of me doesn't want to be covering football games on Labor Day, either.
My solution is to stop kowtowing to the “Save Thanksgiving games!” crowd with all these proposals and just get rid of them in any future proposals. Playing a glorified exhibition game in the middle of the playoffs continues to make absolutely no sense.
To me, it’s real simple: play nine straight games with no bye and then play to a Group champion with no interruption for Thanksgiving games. If you don’t make the postseason, you play your consolation game and then you’re done. While I am no fan of the extra Group V and sub-.500 teams getting in the playoffs, I am willing to live with that because the cream will ultimately rise in a playoff system that goes all the way to public Group champions.
Eliminate Thanksgiving games, but keep the rivalries. Move the rivalry games to either the season opener, like Brick-Brick Memorial and Keansburg-Mater Dei Prep, or, in a change I favor more, move them to the weekend of the state playoff cutoff. That would add some juice to those games because teams could swing their fortunes as far as getting a higher playoff seed or qualifying for the playoffs at the expense of their rival. Imagine if Wall had to beat Manasquan to qualify or get a home game, or vice versa. Imagine Asbury Park could vault to a No. 1 seed in its Group I bracket by beating Group IV Neptune at the cutoff. I would think there would be high interest in that.
However, at this point, I feel like someone shaking his fist at clouds because it doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Thanksgiving games are the sacred cow of New Jersey high school football and just aren’t going away. We just can’t lose all that pageantry, plus the alleged hundreds people in the stands who are visiting from eight states away on Thanksgiving (yeah right) just wouldn’t be able to be there. Plus Augie Varsity Jacket would be crushed that he can’t reminisce about the time Whitey Polowatsky had the dropkick heard across town to seal that magical 6-0 win in 1951 on Thanksgiving. Actually, he can still reminisce about it. Just earlier in the season when the rivalry game is played.
Meanwhile, seven Shore Conference teams playing in state finals next week have to sweat out a glorified exhibition game while praying none of their stars get hurt. At least the Point Beach-Shore and Red Bank Catholic-Rumson-Fair Haven games mean something because they are for division titles. However, in my opinion, all division titles should be decided before the playoffs start, like, I don’t know, EVERY OTHER SPORT in New Jersey scholastic athletics.
To sum up, I’m still in favor of football during Thanksgiving week. It should just be playoff football and not games whose time has passed.
After that cheerful intro, here are the picks.
St. John Vianney (4-5) at Matawan (6-3), 7 p.m.
This is a fun match-up between a pass-heavy St. John Vianney offense led by quarterback Billy DeMato against a tough Matawan defense that gets after the quarterback as well as any team in the Shore with 52 sacks as a team, led by sophomore linebacker Aliem Shaw’s 14 sacks. There should be plenty of wind and rain, which can’t be good for the passing game. The pick: Matawan.
Long Branch (6-3, 4-1) at Red Bank (1-8, 1-4), 7 p.m.
A Long Branch team that had a first-round playoff exit will try to finish strong by taking care of business against the Bucs on the road in one of the oldest rivalries in the Shore. The pick: Long Branch.
Thanksgiving Day games
Raritan (3-6, 2-3) at Holmdel (2-7, 0-5), 10 a.m.
Raritan comes in banged up with injuries from its consolation game loss to Matawan, while Holmdel picked up a win in its consolation game against Red Bank after a season filled with plenty of injuries of its own. This game should be sponsored by Professional Orthopaedic Associates. The pick: Raritan.
Central (5-4) at Southern (4-5), 10 a.m.
Southern has a blizzard of injuries and will be without starting quarterback Logan Sheehan, star wideout Mike Gesicki and other key players. Central enters looking to lock down a winning season in its first year under Willie Jacobs. This is a test of the strength of their two divisions. Can the second-place team in Class B South at full strength beat a depleted, fifth-place team in A South? The pick: Central.
Neptune (4-5) at Asbury Park (7-3), 10 a.m.
One of the Shore’s oldest rivalries, these two teams are always jacked up to play one another no matter what the records are. Both saw their playoff hopes come to an end, so for the seniors it’s all about saying you went out by beating your rival. Neptune’s Jaree Parrish has come on strong in the running game as the season has progressed and seems poised for a big season next year, while Asbury Park was on fire offensively before being stopped by Shore Regional in the playoffs, so we'll see if the Blue Bishops can recover. The pick: Neptune.
Pinelands (1-8, 1-5) at Barnegat (9-1, 5-1), 10 a.m.
This is Barnegat’s “cross your fingers and hope no one gets hurt” game, as the Bengals look to handle their business against the Wildcats before turning their attention toward winning the program’s first state championship when they face Delsea next week. A victory here gives Barnegat the outright Class B South title, its second division title since the program’s inception in 2006. The Bengals also can extend their single-season school record to 10 wins. The pick: Barnegat.
Middletown North (3-6, 3-2) at Middletown South (4-5, 3-2), 10:30 a.m.
There is more buzz around this game than in about a decade because Middletown North appears to be a team on the rise and one that can actually challenge the Eagles. Middletown South has not lost this game since 2000 and is in the midst of its worst season since 1984. The fact that potentially going .500 at a public school is your worst season in 29 years shows how good the Eagles have been. The Lions have a team built for future success with freshman quarterback Donald Glenn and sophomore running back Chad Freshnock, the latter of whom is battling a shoulder injury. However, Middletown South has a strong sophomore class and a freshman group that went undefeated, annihilating its opponents and not allowing a point all season, so reinforcements are on the way. This rivalry could really heat up in the next few years. The pick: Middletown South.
Ocean (9-1) at Monmouth (3-6), 10:30 a.m.
Ocean watched its state championship hopes get away with a loss to Hopewell Valley, so it will look to crack the 10-win mark and continue to dominate its rivalry with the Falcons to end the season by sending out a great senior class with a win. The pick: Ocean.
Manasquan (7-3) at Wall (3-6), 11 a.m.
Considering Manasquan already beat Wall 29-7 and the Crimson Knights have lost six straight, the only suspense in this one could be who collects the monster pot for the 50-50 at halftime. Although, you never know, crazier things have happened over the years in this game. The pick: Manasquan.
Toms River North (1-8, 0-6) at Toms River East (3-6, 1-5), 11 a.m.
Toms River North avoided the Armageddon of a winless season by getting a victory in its consolation game, so it has some momentum to try to build off of heading into next season if it can get a win here. Toms River East has a big senior class that has been on varsity for three seasons, led by tailback Matt Gudzak, that will look to go out on a high note. The pick: Toms River East.
Toms River South (7-3) at Lakewood (6-4), 11 a.m.
This might be the best game of the day. The oldest rivalry in the Shore, this pits two teams who each reached the playoff semifinals in their respective brackets. Toms River South suffered an absolute heartbreaker in a 28-24 loss to Shawnee, while Lakewood was overwhelmed by undefeated Weequahic. This game brings out the best in both teams. I think Toms River South’s edge with its playmakers on offense should be just enough to overcome a tough Lakewood defense. The pick: Toms River South.
Freehold Township (1-8) at Freehold Boro (1-8), 11 a.m.
Both of these teams lost their consolation games and have struggled offensively for much of the season. I honestly have no idea how this game might turn out. The pick: Freehold Township.
Marlboro (2-7, 0-5) at Manalapan (10-0, 5-0), 2 p.m.
Manalapan is going to want to get this one wrapped up by halftime and get its stars off the field to avoid any injuries with a huge state final against Hunterdon Central looming. This game is Exhibit A of why Thanksgiving games need to go. The pick: Manalapan.
Jackson Liberty (4-5) at Jackson Memorial (7-3), 7 p.m.
Jackson Memorial has owned this series so far, having never lost to the Lions. Until that changes, my pick in this game won’t. The pick: Jackson Memorial.
Rumson-Fair Haven (10-0, 5-0) at Red Bank Catholic (9-1, 5-0), 7 p.m.
This is for the Class A Central title. RBC has beaten Rumson 10 straight times, but with their defense and the Shore Conference’s leading rusher, junior Charlie Volker, the Bulldogs certainly have a shot to end that streak. RBC just saw the best team in the state and one of the best in the country last week in a playoff loss to St. Joseph-Montvale, so it will be more than ready for Rumson. The Caseys have nothing left to play for other than making a final emphatic statement that they are the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference. Meanwhile, Rumson is trying to get a win and a title but also trying to make sure that its stars make it out against the physical Caseys without any injuries in order to be at full strength for a showdown against Weequahic in the Central Jersey Group II final next week. RBC is trying to win its seventh division title in the last nine seasons and its fourth in a row. Rumson is looking for its third division title since 2009 and first since 2011. I just think RBC is too good up front to be slowed down by any Shore team for a whole game. The pick: Red Bank Catholic.
Point Beach (9-1, 4-0) at Shore (9-1, 4-0), 7 p.m.
This is for the B Central title. Point Beach is the defending champion after beating Shore on Thanksgiving last year, so the Blue Devils look to return the favor. Point Beach has never won back-to-back division titles and can also tie the single-season school record it set last year with 10 wins. This is the first of two meetings between the teams, as they will play again next week in the Central Jersey Group I final. That makes me wonder if one team is down, say, 21-7 in the middle of the fourth quarter if it will pull its starters and regroup for the state final. Let’s be honest, a state championship is a bigger deal than this game. Winning this game is nice and all, but the one that people will remember is next week. I don’t see the coaches holding back many new wrinkles in the gameplan or anything for next week because these teams are not subtle. They line up in the Wing-T and come right at you in the running game. You either stop it or you don’t. Last year, Point Beach’s line won the battle on both sides, stuffing Shore’s run game and chasing quarterback Matt Muh while piling up yards in the run game on offense. Shore looks to reverse that situation this year. It should be a great game and an appetizer for next week. The pick: Shore.
Howell (4-5, 2-3) at Colts Neck (9-1, 4-1)
Pretty much all there is to gain in this game for Colts Neck is setting the school record with 10 wins. Other than that, the Cougars want to make it through this with all of their top players in one piece with a chance at school history looming next week when they face Brick in their first state final. The pick: Colts Neck.