2023 NJSIAA Football Group 2 State Championship Game Preview
NJSIAA GROUP 2 STATE FINAL
WHO: Rumson-Fair Haven (8-4) vs. Westwood (12-0)
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 27, 5 p.m.
WHERE: SHI Stadium at Rutgers University - 1 Scarlet Knight Way, Piscataway, NJ 08854
WESTWOOD'S ROAD TO THE STATE FINAL: Defeated Dumont, 41-12, in the North 1, Group 2 quarterfinals; defeated Newton, 42-8, in the semifinals; defeated Rutherford, 20-7, in the North 1, Group 2 sectional final; defeated Bernards, 17-0, in the Group 2 semifinals.
RUMSON’S ROAD TO THE STATE FINAL: Defeated Delaware Valley, 47-13, in the South Jersey Group 2 quarterfinals; defeated Haddon Heights, 28-7, in the semifinals; defeated Haddonfield, 14-7, in the South Jersey Group 2 final; defeated Willingboro, 35-28, in the Group 2 semifinals.
WESTWOOD'S BEST WINS: 21-0 over North 2, Group 3 sectional champion West Essex; 30-7 over North, 2, Group 2 finalist Lakeland; 42-8 over Newton; 20-7 over Rutherford in the North 1, Group 2 sectional final; 17-0 over Bernards in the Group 2 semifinals.
RUMSON’S BEST WINS: 24-6 over Middletown South; 24-3 over South Jersey Group 5 finalist Marlboro; 14-7 over Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 final; 35-28 over Willingboro in the Group 2 semifinals.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Rumson will play in the Group 2 final for the second straight season after consecutive thrilling victories over Haddonfield and Wilingboro in the South Jersey Group 2 sectional final and the Group 2 semifinals, respectively. Rumson has won eight sectional titles in the last 13 years and is 35-14 all-time in the postseason across 21 playoff appearances...Westwood also has a similar championship history with seven sectional titles, all of which have some since 2004. The Cardinals are 33-20 all-time in the playoffs across 26 appearances. They won a sectional title in 2022 before losing to eventual Group 2 champion Caldwell, 13-7, in the state semifinals. The Cardinals also won sectional titles in 2016, 2014, 2013, 2006, and 2004.
Rumson's defense vs. Westwood's offense
One week after facing a dynamic and explosive Willingboro offense in the semifinals, Rumson must slow down another high-octane passing offense when it faces Westwood and 2,100-yard senior quarterback Robbie Carcich. The Cardinals are averaging 33.6 points per game this season led by their passing attack that has seen Carcich throw for 2,117 yards with 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has also been incredibly accurate in completing 79 percent of his attempts. Westwood has two players with over 600 receiving yards and another with just under 500 receiving yards, so Carcich has multiple options. Senior wide receiver Joe Klein has caught 55 passes for 668 yards and nine touchdowns while senior tight end Tommy Bussanich has been their big-play option with 36 catches for 644 yards and seven touchdowns on an average of 18.4 yards per reception. Senior Aidan Carrazana has 29 catches for 495 yards and three touchdowns.
What makes Westwood even more difficult to defend is a rushing offense that has churned out 2,348 yards and 28 touchdowns. Junior running back Aidan Dugan has a team-high 732 yards and two touchdowns on an average of 6.9 yards per attempt while Carcich has 700 yards and 11 touchdowns on an average of 7.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Steve Klein has 439 yards and seven touchdowns, while Carranza has 212 yards rushing and five touchdowns and junior Eli Tavares has 192 yards and three touchdowns.
Rumson's defense hasn't been dominant in one specific area this season, but the Bulldogs have shown great adaptability in their victories. If they need to win a high-scoring game, they can do that (35-28 over Willingboro in the Group 2 semifinals). If a low-scoring game is what plays out, Rumson has the gumption to win those, as well (14-7 over Haddonfield in the sectional final). Rumson's defense has also been dramatically clutch with a pair of defensive stops in the end zone in the final minute of the wins over Willingboro and Haddonfield. Senior Cooper Bunnell spearheads the defensive line with 61 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks along with promising sophomore Jack Harris. Senior linebacker Reid Elsas is the team's leading tackler with 115 stops plus 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks and junior linebacker Austin Kiernan has had a strong season with 69 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The secondary will be tested by Carcich and Westwood's deep group of receiving options, but Rumson has the standouts to match with senior Wesley Kennedy and juniors Cole Pangborn (3 INTs) and Jacob Tobias (9.5 TFL) leading the way.
There isn't a clear formula for Rumson, such as stopping the run to force Westwood to pass or vice versa, because the Cardinals are well-balanced. It will be about getting stops in critical moments and continuing the trend of forcing turnovers in key situations.
Rumson's offense vs. Westwood's defense
The Bulldogs don't have the same gaudy stats as Westwood, but the two offenses are pretty similar across the board. Rumson is led by junior quarterback Owen O'Toole and his 1,917 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The gauntlet of the American Division that accounted for three of Rumson's four losses (Red Bank Catholic, Donovan Catholic, and Toms River North) was certainly a factor in O'Toole throwing 10 interceptions in the regular season but he has rebounded to throw for 695 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in four playoff games. Last season, senior wide receiver Nick Rigby had similar numbers to Westwood's leading receiving Joe Klein but an injury forced Rigby to miss multiple games before returning for the last two games. He is a great possession receiver with excellent hands that he showed off with a crucial 2-point conversion catch in the win over Willingboro. The silver lining of Rigby being out of the lineup was that someone else had to step forward, and that man has been Jackson Gallagher. The senior tight end has been tremendous over the last five games with 18 catches for 340 yards and eight touchdowns, finding the end zone at least once in five straight games. Senior Sean Trinder also missed most of the regular season after an injury in Week 0 and he returned for the second playoff game. Senior Matteo Gangemi and juniors Nick Thomas (25 catches, 288 yards, 1 TD) and Jordan Angstreich have also proven to be reliable options for O'Toole.
Rumson doesn't have one signature tailback like many of their championship teams have. Instead, the duo of senior Alastair Orr (641 yards, 5 TDs) and sophomore Kellen Murray (580 yards, 7 TDs) have led the charge along with senior Griffin Kolb. Orr rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns vs. Willingboro while Murray stepped up with a pair of 100-yard games late in the regular season and early in the playoffs.
The Bulldogs will try to crack a Westwood defense that has allowed just 60 points all season (five points per game) with five shutouts, including a 17-0 win over Bernards in the Group 2 semifinals. There are playmakers everywhere for the Cardinals. Senior linebacker Michael Carcich is the leading tackler with 65 stops, 4 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. Junior linebacker Luke Biello leads the way with 8.5 sacks, junior defensive lineman Dario Mathurin has 7.5 sacks and six tackles for loss, and Tommy Bussanich leads the Cardinals with 11.5 tackles for loss. O'Toole will have to look out for Steve Klein and his team-leading six interceptions roaming the secondary.
Westwood junior Sean Morrison has kicked one field goal and converted 42 of 46 extra points. Carranza and Tavares have each returned a kickoff for a touchdown and Joe Klein has a punt return touchdown.
Rumson has used a pair of kickers in senior Ryan Child and junior Carson Memmott this season, but Child has been the main kicker. He has made 19 of 23 extra points and has one field goal in two attempts.
On paper, this is a similar matchup to last season when Rumson lost to an undefeated Caldwell team in the Group 2 state final. The numbers alone would lead one to believe that unbeaten Westwood is the clear favorite, and while the Cardinals have a great championship history over the last 20 years, Rumson has a special set of intangibles that is hard to quantify if you haven't seen it in action. Simply put, the Bulldogs just find a way to get the job done. They have probably played the most difficult schedule of any Group 2 team in the state, so they are battle-tested. It will come down to execution and in-game adjustments by the coaching staff, two things Rumson has perfected over the greatest run of postseason success in Shore Conference history. After having their season end in heartbreak at Rutgers last season, Rumson will do just enough to clip Westwood and hoist the 2023 Group 2 state championship trophy.
The pick: Rumson-Fair Haven