Central Jersey Group III Championship Preview
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP III CHAMPIONSHIP
Friday at 7 p.m. at Kean University
(5) Matawan (7-4) vs. (3) Carteret (8-3)
Matawan's best win: 40-17 over Class B South co-champion Barnegat (7-3).
Carteret's best win: 21-17 over second-seeded Long Branch (8-3) in semifinals.
Matawan keys to the game:
1. Create turnovers.
Matawan thrives off momentum plays by its defense, whether it's interceptions by its standout secondary led by Justin Ferrara, DeJohn Rogers and Shawn Ramcheran, or tackles for a loss by a solid front seven led by linebackers Aliem Shaw and Isaiah Phillip as well as defensive tackle Jake Weber. If it can put the offense in a short field early in the game to gain immediate confidence, Matawan may ride that wave all the way to a title.
2. Establish the running game early.
Obviously Matawan can have freshman quarterback George "L.C." Pearson sit back and throw the ball a ton out of the shotgun if necessary, but when Devon Spann and the running game going, it opens up everything and makes the Huskies particularly hard to defend. If Carteret has to genuinely worry about the run, Pearson is going to have some great opportunities to get the ball deep downfield to his playmakers and out in space on the perimeter with quick passes. The backbone of Carteret's team is its defense, so if the Huskies can put them on their heels immediately, that could be a crucial psychological edge for Matawan.
3. Stay poised.
Matawan has a young team, including a freshman quarterback, that has never played in a game of this magnitude on the big stage. Pearson showed he has maturity beyond his years when he shook off three interceptions in the semifinals against Ocean and kept firing to help pull out the win. Carteret rallied from a 17-0 hole to beat Long Branch, so the Huskies can't get complacent if they get an early lead.
4. Stop the run.
While Carteret quarterback Nelson Baez has thrown for 1,191 yards this year and nine touchdowns, he also has thrown seven interceptions. This team's main objective is to run the ball behind senior Ra'Keem Bennett, who has 1,155 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. If Matawan can get an early lead and remove him from the equation, that plays right into the Huskies' hands because their secondary is arguably the best part of their defense and would welcome Carteret getting put in obvious passing situations. The Ramblers are more of a power-running team out of the I-formation than an explosive speed team, so it's all about the defensive line tying up blockers and allowing Shaw, Phillip and Co. to come storming in unblocked to put ballcarriers on the ground at the point of attack.
5. Limit penalties.
Matawan can exasperate itself with penalties because it's such a big-play offense. The Huskies can't have issues where a holding penalty negates a 75-yard touchdown or a false start in the red zone kills a drive, which has happened at times this year with a fairly young team. When the Huskies play mistake-free, their athletic advantage usually starts to win out as the game goes along because they have too many playmakers, namely Ferrara, Rogers and Ramcheran as well as junior kicker Adam Elliott, for most teams to contain the whole way.
Have to stop: Brandon Gilder, Sr., WR/S
Obviously Bennett is a focal point, but Gilder is the main downfield threat in the passing game with 36 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns. He also has 80-plus tackles and three interceptions at safety, so Pearson will need to do his best to look him off on any deep routes. Bennett also has 101 tackles as a linebacker, so the Matawan offensive line will look to get to the second level and get a body on him.
Underrated player: Matt Liebowitz, Sr., TE/LB
Liebowitz is a receiving threat at tight end running down the seam when teams get worried about covering Ramcheran, Ferrara and Rogers out on the perimeter and down the sideline. He also has 12 quarterback pressures, third on the team after Weber and Shaw, so he should be a factor on blitzes when it comes to getting after Baez.
X-factor: George Pearson.
I believe no team in Shore Conference history has won a state title with a freshman as a starting quarterback, so this is uncharted territory for the precocious Pearson, whose 1,755 passing yards are believed to be a Shore Conference record for a freshman. If he can make throws on the run and avoid turnovers, the Huskies should bring it home.
Notes: Matawan is seeking its seventh state title in history and its third in the last six seasons...This would be Matawan's first state title under head coach John Kaye, who is in his third season...Carteret is gunning for its sixth state title overall and its second in three seasons after going undefeated in 2012..Matawan beat Carteret 28-14 in their last playoff meeting in 2011 in the first round on its way to winning the Central Jersey Group II title.