Central Jersey Group IV Championship Preview
*Note: This game will be broadcast live on the radio by Shore Sports Network on 1160/1310 a.m. and streaming audio online right here on ShoreSportsNetwork.com.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV CHAMPIONSHIP
Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rutgers University
(1) Middletown South (9-2) vs. (3) Jackson Memorial (10-1)
Jackson's best win: 33-27 in overtime against Non-Public Group III finalist Red Bank Catholic.
Middletown South's best wins: Two wins over Central Jersey Group IV semifinalist Neptune, 41-0 and 27-3.
Middletown South keys to the game:
1. Win the battle of field position.
In Middletown South's last loss, a 21-3 setback to Central Jersey Group V finalist Manalapan, the Braves got two scores from short fields off a fumble return and a three-and-out by the Eagles deep in their own territory. Not too many teams have shown they can sustain long drives against a Middletown South defense that has six shutouts, so preventing Jackson from starting possessions inside Eagles' territory will be huge.
2. Make plays on special teams.
One way to close the gap with the Jaguars is on special teams, where the Eagles have had a strong year. Junior kicker Matt Mosquera has a Shore Conference-best 13 field goals, one shy of the single-season Shore record of 14 set by Matawan's Mike Creamer last year. Joe Timmins also returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown in the semifinal win over Neptune, so this is an area where the Eagles can try to tilt the game and stay right in it down the stretch.
3. Make plays in the passing game.
While Jackson Memorial's defense just crushed a high-octane Brick attack in a 44-0 win in the semifinals, it has shown some cracks at times this year against the passing game of RBC and in a regular-season loss to Brick, so Mosquera is going to have to make some accurate throws to keep the chains moving and open things up so that Jackson can't just gang up on junior 1,700-yard rusher Cole Rogers. Middletown South's receivers, led by senior A.J. Leandro and junior Tom Coffey, have to be able to get quick separation from a solid Jackson secondary and allow Mosquera to get the ball out quickly.
4. Get negative plays early in Jackson drives.
Middletown South's defense is at its best when it is shooting gaps and dropping ballcarriers for losses on first down. While the Eagles have gone away from their 4-4 look to more of a 4-2-5 in order to combat spread offenses, this looks to be an all-hands-on-deck situation to stop Jackson's formidable running game. The more the Eagles can get hits for a short gain or a loss on first down, the more it allows them to cut down on Jackson's playbook and send their pass rushers at quarterback Joe DeMaio without worrying about getting burned by the run. Middletown South has to use its speed and quickness up front to counteract a size disadvantage and shoot gaps to make plays. A big key in playing against Jackson is playing with poise because the Jaguars are bound to hit some big plays, so the important thing is not to let it snowball and to keep battling.
5. Be physical up front on offense.
Sometimes the Eagles get caught up more in a finesse, high-tempo game on offense, but they will have to knuckle up on the offensive line against a physical Jackson team. This is the opportunity for a big statement game for their offensive line if they can blow open some holes for Rogers, who hasn't really been completely bottled up by any teams this year in big games. The more effective they are with Rogers, the more that explosive Jackson offense has to stand on the sidelines.
Have to stop: Jackson's offensive line.
The mammoth group of senior center Ryan Frasier, senior right guard Glenn Kipila, senior left tackle Brad Greenway, junior right tackle Dylan Smith and senior left guard Tyler Rauch, as well as 225-pound senior fullback Cole Collins and 260-pound tight end Brody Graham, have crushed just about everyone in their path this year. Jackson has two 1,000-yard rushers in sophomore Mike Gawlik and junior Vinny Lee, plus more weapons in DeMaio and senior Matt Castronuova, but it's the offensive line that sets the tone for everything. If Middletown South can't hold its own against this group, its chances of winning are bleak.
Underrated player: Pat Crowe, Sr., TE/DE.
Crowe could be huge in this game if he is matched up against Graham, who sets the edge as well as any tight end in the Shore. If Middletown South can consistently funnel the Jackson runners back inside, where standout linebackers Dylan Rogers, James McCarthy and Sergio Gonzalez are lurking, that would be huge.
X-factor: Tom Coffey, Jr., WR
If Mosquera can hit some shots downfield with Coffey to loosen things up for Rogers at the line of scrimmage and put Jackson on its heels, that could change the game. A key factor could potentially be the weather because if a steady rain is falling, that might remove this option from the equation.
Jackson Memorial keys to the game:
1. Win up front.
The Jaguars are the only team in the Shore whose offensive line has taken it to the formidable group at Red Bank Catholic all season, so this is where it all starts. Gawlik and Lee are both 5-foot-7, so it's hard to find them among the big bodies up front until it's too late, often springing them for big gains. Jackson has run for 257.5 yards per game this season on an average of seven yards per carry, so their running game has been basically unstoppable. They need one more of those performances to finish the job against a Middletown South defensive front that is undersized compared to a Jackson line that averages 260 pounds across.
2. Hit big plays.
Jackson can lull teams to sleep by chipping away four or five yards at a time with the running game before hitting a jet sweep to Matt Castronuova for a 60-yard touchdown or having DeMaio unload one deep downfield to Castronuova, Kyle Johnson or Aaron Curet. The ability to execute those big plays and put Middletown South in an immediate hole is crucial.
3. Get properly aligned before the snap.
Middletown South's offense runs at a high tempo, often snapping the ball only seconds after the official places it at the spot, so it's all about getting properly aligned quickly for the Jackson defense. Everything revolves around Middletown South's running game and Rogers, so the Jaguars don't want to get caught with guys out of position that will allow the Eagles to gash them six or seven yards at a time.
4. Execute on special teams.
Especially if the weather is bad, this could be a key area. The Jaguars can't have bad snaps or miscues on punts or things like that to allow Middletown South to get short fields. Jackson also has a great weapon in junior kicker Jared Calhoun, who nailed a 40-yard field goal in the semifinal win over Brick and hit two clutch field goals in the win over RBC.
5. Bring pressure.
Mosquera struggled with guys in his face in a loss to Manalapan, so Jackson wants to be able to unleash linebacker Zach Tetro (7 sacks) and junior defensive end Tyler Towns (5 sacks) in the pass rush by putting Middletown South consistently into third-and-6 and situations like that. Mosquera is only 5-foot-9, so the Jaguars want to force him to throw it through the trees like Towns, Brad Greenway and others with them bearing down on him.
Have to stop: Cole Rogers, Jr., RB.
When Middletown South wins big, you can usually pencil in Rogers for 160-plus yards rushing. In their roughest offensive game of the season, a 21-3 setback to Manalapan, the Braves scored early and gradually removed Rogers from the gameplan, forcing the Eagles into the uncomfortable situation of having to throw on almost every down.
Underrated player: Cole Collins, Sr., RB/LB
Collins is a big fullback who blows open holes in the running game, so expect some jarring collisions between him and Middletown South's standout linebacking group. Also, Collins has 97 tackles at linebacker and has been a force opposite Zach Tetro. He will be zeroed in on stopping Rogers in the running game.
X-factor: Matt Castronuova, Sr., WR/DB
He is Jackson's big-play guy, a player capable of taking a jet sweep 70 yards to the house or hauling in a 15-yard pass over the middle and turning it into a 60-yard gain. When teams sell out to stop the run, he is usually the one who makes them pay dearly like he did with a 53-yard touchdown catch in the semifinal win over Brick.
Notes: Jackson Memorial is seeking its fourth state title overall and first since going undefeated in 2005...Middletown South is seeking its 10th state title overall and first since 2006. The Eagles are playing in the finals for the 11th time in the last 14 seasons...Middletown South is 0-4 in its last four state final appearances...Jackson Memorial is 3-1 in its four appearances in the state finals since 2000...Jackson Memorial's 38-point win over Middletown North in the first round was a playoff record for the Jaguars until they beat it a week later with a 44-point win over Brick...Middletown South's six shutouts this season have tied a school record...Jackson Memorial's 402 points scored are one shy of the single-season school record set during by the undefeated 2001 team that finished ranked No. 1 in the state...The Jaguars and Eagles have never played each other in a state playoff game until now. Their last meeting was a 1993 regular-season game, a 24-17 win by Middletown South, before any of the current seniors were born. Middletown South leads the all-time series with Jackson, 7-3, according to Jackson historian Jim Colbert...Middletown South's nine state titles are the second-most in Shore Conference history behind the 11 won by Manasquan...Jackson Memorial is looking to become the first team besides Red Bank Catholic to finish ranked No. 1 in the Shore since an undefeated Lacey team in 2010.