The Fifth Down: Week Five
When junior Nick Maciejewski's game-winning extra point sailed through the uprights to complete previously winless Wall's stunning, 28-27 double-overtime win over previously unbeaten Brick on Friday night, the question was immediate.
How the heck did the Crimson Knights pull it off?
It turned out to be a combination of both facets of the offense coming together for the first time all season, some new defensive wrinkles and sound tackling, and a team that truly believed it would finish off the win even after Brick rallied to tie the game inside the final two minutes of regulation on its home field.
"You could see it in our eyes,'' wide receiver Liam Ferguson said. "We were refusing to lose that game."
After showing an improved running game in a 21-14 loss to Ocean that came down to the wire and doing some nice things in the passing game in a loss to No. 5 Long Branch, the Crimson Knights and junior quarterback Matt Cluley finally put both areas together in their spread offense. In the first half, their best weapon against Brick's explosive offense was their own offense, as they embarked on a seven-minute scoring drive, converting multiple fourth downs and dominating the time of possession en route to a 14-0 halftime lead thanks to the running game.
"That whole first half set the tempo,'' Cluley said. "We kept them off the field, and I think it was a wake-up call that we were there to play and were ready to go at them, because we didn't back down from anything."
The passing game then helped them bring it home. Cluley finished 9-for-17 for 114 yards and threw three touchdown passes, two of them in overtime, while also running for 88 yards and a score on 27 carries. He hit Ferguson on both overtime touchdowns, including the game-tying score in double overtime on a 37-yard strike after the Crimson Knights got backed up due to a holding call. Ferguson only had three catches all season before he hauled in those two scoring grabs.
"On that particular play, Liam wasn't the first look, but he kept on running his route and never gave up on the play, so I gave him a shot to go get it, and he came down with it,'' Cluley said.
Cluley threaded the ball between two defenders to set up Maciejewski for the game-winning PAT.
"I honestly didn't see the defender at all,'' Ferguson said. "I just kept my eyes on the ball the whole time."
Wall also used the double tight end formation frequently to help negate Brick standout linebacker Ray Fattaruso from bringing pressure off the edge.
Defensively, the Crimson Knights often went to a 4- and 5-man front from their usual 3-4 base defense in a bid to slow down Brick's running game and force standout senior quarterback Carmen Sclafani to beat them by consistently throwing the ball. They also brought more pressure than usual from different angles than what they had shown in previous games, but the most important aspects were simply fundamentals.
They tackled well in open space and they executed their assignments against the zone read while bottling up Fattaruso in the running game and limiting the damage by Sclafani. A Brick offense that was averaging 40 points per game was held to 14 in regulation by a defense engineered by Dan Curcione, who was Wall's defensive coordinator last year before ascending to the head coaching spot. Curcione was honored by the New York Giants after the win over Brick, and Wall also earned Jersey Mike's Team of the Week honors.
Curcione also had plenty of familiarity with Sclafani because Curcione was the defensive coordinator at Toms River North in 2012, when Sclafani was a sophomore quarterback for the Mariners before he transferred to Brick last season.
Senior linebacker Tim McGevna had 13 tackles to help lead the way, as Wall was able to funnel Brick back toward the middle rather than let its playmakers get outside. Fellow linebacker Rich Eknoian also had a strong game.
"We had two weeks to prepare for them, and we knew what they liked to do,'' Eknoian said. "They love to pound the ball with Fattaruso, and we shut that down for the most part. It was just technique. I have a tendency of going outside, and I had to stay inside and stop him."
While Ferguson deservedly received praise for his two huge catches, he may have had an even bigger game on defense. He had 12 tackles at safety, ensuring that 7-yard gains didn't turn into 70-yard touchdowns as the coaching staff had him walk up into the box and support the run.
Finally, they simply didn't get intimidated or wilt when Brick tied the game on a touchdown pass with just over a minute left in regulation. Brick could've ridden that wave of momentum into overtime on its home field, but the Crimson Knights stood strong.
"We played for each other,'' Cluley said. "Every guy was fighting hard for the guy next to him."
"When you've been winning the whole game, how do you think you don't have a shot in overtime?" Curcione said. "We had played a good game. The kids and the coaches thought we were going to win."
Now the goal is to make sure that wasn't just a one-week wonder as the Crimson Knights face another undefeated team, No. 9 Freehold Boro (5-0), in a nondivisional game this weekend. Wall's win has also become a rallying cry for every underdog in the Shore in Week Six to try to become the next team like the Crimson Knights to pull off a stunner.
"We enjoyed the win, but we've got to move on,'' Cluley said. "It's time to get back to business and focus on Freehold Boro."
"I don't know how you could ever say beating a team with that many good coaches, that many good players, a returning state champion - it can't be a fluke,'' Curcione said.
A season that was dead in the water only two weeks ago is now very much alive, as Wall got such a haul of power points that it vaulted into the seventh spot in South Jersey Group III. A win over unbeaten Freehold could launch them higher, as there are only six teams in the bracket that currently even have winning records.
The seismic upset had many long-time Shore Conference fans trying to remember the last time there was an upset on that scale. Jackson Memorial historian and public address announcer Jim Colbert, who has seen a lot of Shore football in his time, compared it to winless Toms River South picking up its only victory of the season in a stunning 12-7 win in 1979 over an undefeated Toms River North team that was 7-0 at the time. That Toms River North team then went on to win the South Jersey Group IV title by beating Brick, 15-14, at the old Giants Stadium. So maybe that bodes well for this year's Brick team in its quest to repeat as Central Jersey Group IV champions.
New and improved
After a change in scheme from its long-time 4-4 base to a 4-2-5 look, plus a year of varsity experience for a group of sophomores who have now become impact juniors, Middletown South's defense has gotten back to its dominant form.
The Eagles have four shutouts in five games under veteran coordinator Al Bigos, and something will have to give when they face the Shore Conference's most prolific offense in a huge top-five showdown against Manalapan in Class A North on Friday night. The undefeated Braves enter averaging 50.8 points per game and have not been held under 41 by any team this season. The only points Middletown South has given up all year came in a 36-24 nonconference loss to undefeated South Brunswick and Syracuse-bound star wideout/running back Dontae Strickland.
"(The new scheme) puts athlete against athlete in space,'' said Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci. "We're no longer playing with an outside linebacker who's physical. Now it's more of a physical/athletic hybrid type. The kids are buying into the scheme, and it gives us some flexibility to do things from a cover standpoint that we couldn't do from the other (scheme).
With a solid front four and a linebacking crew led by junior Dylan Rogers and senior Sergio Gonzalez, the Eagles also have worked to regain the confidence that gave them an edge on defense among their great teams of the mid-2000s. They won't see a more explosive skill player than Strickland, one of the fastest players in the state, but Manalapan still has plenty of weapons, led by senior tailback Imamu Mayfield.
The Eagles have lost four straight times to Manalapan, which has won the last four Class A North titles. This game will be a stern test of how much the Eagles' defense has improved since last year.
"It's a good barometer as to where we are now as opposed to where we were then against South Brunswick,'' Antonucci said.
Ready for his opportunity
When senior tailback Richie Salerno went down with a season-ending ACL tear in the midst of a 193-yard rushing game in Raritan's season-opening win against Manasquan, it appeared to be a crushing blow to the Rockets' offense.
Instead, it became an opportunity for junior Derek Ernst to show what he could do with more touches. He ran for 189 yards in his first game as a starter in a loss to Matawan, followed that with 120 yards and a touchdown in a loss to unbeaten Freehold, and then exploded for a career-high 215 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-27 comeback win over Red Bank Regional that kept the Rockets in the mix for a state playoff berth.
"I definitely felt like I could replace (Salerno),'' Ernst said. "I thought it was an opportunity to show people what I could do and that I was better than just a back-up."
"When Richie got hurt, I turned to Derek and said, 'It's your show now,''' said Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi. "Richie is a senior with a little more experience and more savvy, so we were comfortable giving him the job, but Derek never did anything to lose it. We knew full well if there was a position we had some depth at, it was that spot."
The Rockets' offensive line is also clearly improved over last year's unit given that no matter who has been running behind them, that back has been productive. They have also helped stabilize things after the loss of senior quarterback Riley Sullivan, who has missed two games with a concussion and been replaced by junior Jonathan Rodriguez.
"They're the best part of our team,'' Ernst said about the line. "They work the hardest."
"They're the ones making this whole thing work,'' Petruzzi said. "Richie and Derek are both great players, but the O-line is a step above what we've put out there as a unit and individuals."
The Rockets (2-2) will try to be this week's Wall when they go in as a heavy underdog against fierce rival St. John Vianney (5-0), the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, on their home field on Friday night.
Eager for the challenge
After a record-setting performance in a 54-14 nonconference win over South River, Mater Dei Prep faces its biggest challenge of the season on Saturday when it squares off against defending Class B Central champion Shore Regional in a huge divisional game.
Senior quarterback Christian Palmer has been one of the best dual threats in the Shore so far with 536 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns along with 864 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. The Seraphs exploded for all 54 points in the first half against the Rams, setting a school record for points in a half. It's also only the eighth time since 1930 that a team has hung 50-plus points on South River.
Palmer, a three-year starter, has been a solid running threat the past two years but has dramatically improved as a passer to give the Seraphs' offense much more balance with senior Tysaun White and sophomore Eddie Lewis as the primary receiving threats.
"He's not missing those throws by five yards, he's connecting on those throws,'' Mater Dei head coach Steve Sciarappa said. "That was a big commitment of ours. Christian works his tail off at everything he does. He really committed in the offseason to work on his pass game. We have so many guys on the team who can be a threat. We want to spread it out as best as we can."
Besides a year of maturation for a lineup that returned most of its starters, an increase in numbers has also been crucial in Mater Dei's 4-1 start.
"One thing that I think has helped us tremendously is we are pretty much a two-platoon team, and that allows us to get so many more reps in practice,'' Sciarappa said. "We also can make adjustments during the game, and the guys are fresher, and getting stronger and better at what they do instead of playing 110 snaps per game."
A Seraphs' offense averaging 40.2 points per game will face a rugged Shore defense that is only allowing seven points per game and has eight sacks and six interceptions in four games.
"When you play Shore Regional, 'Cos' (Mark Costantino) is a Hall of Fame coach,'' Sciarappa said. "He knows how to prepare and gameplan, and he gets every ounce out of those kids at Shore. They always tackle well, and when you play a team like Shore, the first thing is you can't make a mistake because they're not going to make mistakes."
Shore rolled over Mater Dei 38-12 last year with its physical front line on both sides of the ball, so it will be up to a Seraphs' line that plays two seniors and a rotation of four sophomores to give Palmer time to make plays. A win over the Blue Devils would be a clear signal that the Seraphs are a prime candidate to make the leap from contender to division champion, with Point Beach being their main obstacle after that.
"That's what we wanted to do,'' Sciarappa said. "Year Five of the 5-year plan was to compete for the division and advance in the playoffs. It's so exciting to be playing against a team like Shore Regional in a game that has some real implications for both teams."
Since taking the reins of the offense full time after an injury to senior Joe Hans, who had been rotating in, Brick Memorial junior quarterback Tim Santiago has flourished in the Mustangs' flexbone set with steady improvement every week. He leads the team with 456 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns.
His latest performance was a career-high 211 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a key nonconference win over Old Bridge last week, and now he faces the daunting challenge of the Jackson Memorial defense, which shut down Toms River North last week.
"He's gotten better in his decision-making and his burst off of his decision,'' Brick Memorial head coach Walt Currie said. "When he gets a pull read, early in the preseason and season, he wouldn't be able to burst out of the mesh. Now because he's making better decisions, it allows him to burst off the mesh with more confidence and less tentatively than in the preseason."
When Currie led the Mustangs to the Central Jersey Group IV title in 2008, current assistant Brian Staub made a steady improvement every week in running the triple option until he was nearly unstoppable by the end of the year.
"(Santiago) is grasping it quicker than Staub, who didn't start until game seven of his junior season, but it's unfair to compare him to Brian because he was such a great player for us. But Santiago is getting a better grasp every week, and he's starting to throw the ball better."
News and notes
**Manalapan senior kicker Mike Caggiano can become the Shore Conference's all-time scoring leader among kickers with one point in the Braves' huge Class A North showdown with Middletown South on Friday night. Caggiano booted six extra points in a 42-14 win over Lacey to tie, coincidentally, a Middletown South graduate, former kicker Connor Ryan, with 212 points for his career. The all-time scoring leader among any position player in the Shore is Miami Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno, another Middletown South graduate who had a state-record 128 touchdowns and 728 career points from 2002-05. Speaking of Moreno, unfortunately he is now out for the season for Miami with a torn ACL.
**Former highly-successful Mater Dei Prep and Pinelands head coach and former Lacey assistant Craig Cicardo Sr. can now add "author" and "motivational speaker" to his impressive resume. Cicardo has authored a book about leadership called "Be Tough...But Don't be a 'Tough Guy,''' that can be found here. He also has been giving motivational presentations, which you can learn more about here. Cicardo was the offensive coordinator on two undefeated state championship teams for Lacey in 2006 and 2010, the latter of which finished No. 1 in the Shore while being led by his son, Craig Jr., at quarterback. He also took Mater Dei to its last state final appearance in 1999 and led Pinelands to its first state playoff appearance in program history in 2002.
**Mater Dei Prep senior running back/safety Tyson Stamper, a transfer who played his first three seasons at North Jersey power Bergen Catholic, has gotten interest from Lafayette, Duquesne and Marist as a safety, according to coach Steve Sciarappa.
**Freehold Township (2-3) has a good shot at only its second state playoff appearance in program history and first since 2001. The Patriots are currently in eighth place in Central Jersey Group V and play winless Marlboro this week in a bid to get back to .500. With winnable games against New Brunswick and Edison, who are a combined 2-8, before a big one with Middletown North, there is a good shot they can make the postseason. A big reason is an improved offense in the new spread attack behind quarterback Jack O'Brien, who has thrown for 615 yards and three touchdowns in five games after throwing for 901 in 10 games as a sophomore last year. Also, senior Matt Pine has 329 yards rushing, whereas the Patriots' leading rusher at the end of last season had 395 in 10 games.
**Long Branch senior tailback Dahmiere Willis is averaging 8.9 yards per carry in leading the Shore Conference with 1,143 yards rushing in five games, including four straight games of 200 more yards. He is getting interest from Wagner and some other FCS programs.
**Middletown North junior tailback Chad Fresnock is averaging 8.2 yards per carry in rolling up 702 yards through five games.
**Red Bank Regional junior receiver Sadiq Palmer is averaging 21.5 yards per catch in racking up 280 yards on 13 grabs through four games. He also has a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and two other touchdowns over 60 yards.
**Red Bank Catholic is averaging 20.8 yards per punt return, including 25.8 on five returns by senior Nick Lubischer, who has taken two of them to the house.
**Barnegat senior linebacker Kyle Morris has two defensive touchdowns in the last two weeks, a fumble return and an interception return.
**College of the Desert defensive back Ikie Calderon (Neptune) verbally committed to Eastern Michigan this past weekend. Calderon starred on the 2011 Neptune team that won the Central Jersey Group III title and also was a standout point guard on the basketball team that won the Group III title. He played a postgrad year at Milford Academy and then two junior college seasons at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California.
**Albright running back Danny Tighe (Pt. Beach) was named to the Middle Atlantic Conference honor roll after running for 143 yards.
**The College of New Jersey freshman running back Khani Glover (Jackson Memorial) earned his third New Jersey Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week honor this season.
**If football doesn't pan out for Michigan State star defensive end and projected first-round NFL draft pick Shilique Calhoun (Middletown North), WWE wrestling could be in his future.