MANALAPAN - With its offensive stars back to full health and its relentless defense continuing to shine, Manalapan sent a reminder in front of a capacity home crowd in its 48-18 win over previously unbeaten Colts Neck on Friday night.

When it comes public school programs in the Shore Conference and the race in Class A North, it's the Braves and then everyone else.

The lethal offensive combination of senior wideout Saeed Blacknall (left) and senior tailback Tyler Leonetti was on full display in Manalapan's 48-18 win over Colts Neck in a match-up of unbeatens. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, Manalapan (6-0, 4-0) hung 48 points and rolled up 295 yards of total offense on the No. 3 Cougars (5-1, 2-1), who had only given up seven points all season entering the game. Senior tailback Tyler Leonetti, who missed 1 1/2 games with an ankle injury before returning last week, had 162 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Senior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, a Rutgers recruit, also was back at full power after a hyperextended knee suffered two weeks ago. He had six catches for 68 yards and three touchdowns.

"It's a really big statement for us,'' Blacknall said. "Coach (Ed Gurrieri) was preaching for us to finish. We knew this team was tough, so that hype built it up a lot, and we came out here and did what we know we can do. We have a bunch of playmakers. You cover me up, someone else is going to get it. You cover that person up, I'm going to get it. You can't really guess where the ball's going."

The victory was a crucial one as Manalapan seeks a top-two seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V bracket in its quest to win the program's first state sectional championship after losing in the finals the past two years.

"Colts Neck is a great team,'' said senior linebacker Chris Noesges. "They are going to make a run at a state championship, but we showed that even against good competition, we're going to step up. We know if we play Manalapan football where we stop the run, we run the ball and we throw it over their heads, that's when we'll take home a ring."

The Braves, who have now won 20 straight divisional games and 21 straight games against Shore Conference opponents, set the tone from the outset on their opening drive. They went 52 yards in six plays, taking a 7-0 lead on a 20-yard run by Leonetti off the left side with 8:28 left in the first quarter.

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The defense came up with a second straight three-and-out, but Colts Neck got the ball right back when senior defensive lineman Ryan Wetzel recovered a fumble at Manalapan's 45-yard line. Three plays later, junior quarterback Christian Sanchez hit senior tailback Anthony Gargiulo with a screen pass, and he shook off a tackler in the backfield and ran 49 yards for a touchdown.

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However, Manalapan senior Chris Cruz blocked the extra point attempt to keep the Braves in front, 7-6.

 

Manalapan's defense held a potent Colts Neck attack to under 200 total yards to help key the victory. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Manalapan answered immediately when junior John Cheung burst through a seam in the middle of the field and took the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown and a 14-6 lead. It continued the stellar special teams play of the Braves, as that was Cheung's third kickoff or punt that he has returned for a score this season and the third special teams touchdown in two games for Manalapan.

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The Braves' defense came up with another stop when defensive lineman Nick Douglas hit Gargiulo for a five-yard loss on third down, but once again, Colts Neck capitalized on a Manalapan mistake for a touchdown. On the first play of the Braves' drive, junior quarterback Dan Anerella threw a pass behind the line, and Gargiulo, who also plays defensive end, stepped in front of it and took it 38 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was no good, keeping Manalapan's lead at 14-12 with 14.8 seconds left in the first quarter.

Manalapan shook off the miscue to drive 58 yards in eight plays, taking a 21-12 lead when Anerella threw a 9-yard fade pass to Blacknall for the first of his three touchdowns.

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A sack by Kyle Mullen for an 11-yard loss ended Colts Neck's ensuing drive, and the Braves pushed the lead to 28-12 when Blacknall got open with a double move and Anerella hit him for a 25-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. Anerella played the whole game, throwing for 127 yards on 9-for-17 passing, after having rotated in previous games with junior Charles Lombana, who was out with an ankle injury.

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"(Blacknall) is my safety blanket,'' Anerella said. "If I ever get in trouble in the pocket, we have a good chemistry, and he knows I will get the ball to him. We knew we were going to see a little bit more (defenders) in the box. If they rotate the coverage to Saeed, we run the ball. If they bring defenders in the box, we get the ball out to Saeed."

"For a first-year starter in his first big game, his first homecoming, it was a great game for him,'' Blacknall said about Anerella.

The lead remained 16 points going into halftime, as the Braves held Colts Neck to two first downs and 14 yards rushing in the first half. Gargiulo, a standout who has an offer from Navy and several high-level FCS offers, finished with 87 yards on the ground, but 38 of them came on a harmless touchdown in the fourth quarter when the Braves were already up big. By stopping the run game, the Braves were able to consistently pressure Sanchez, who was 3-for-16 passing against the first team with a winning record that Colts Neck has faced this season.

"We had to get (Gargiulo) going east and west and get them into situations they didn't want to be in - second-and-long, third-and-medium,'' Noesges said. "They're not going to run in those situations. They're going to run screen passes, they're going to run quick outs. That's what we wanted to get them in because once Gargiulo gets going north and south, he's hard to stop."

Colts Neck had some early momentum to start the second half when its defense forced a three-and-out, but gave the ball right back with a muffed punt that Manalapan recovered at the Cougars' 14-yard line. The Braves converted that into a 31-yard field goal by standout junior kicker Mike Caggiano for a 31-12 lead with 8:16 left in the third quarter.

Manalapan's defense then forced a three-and-out, which led to a nine-play drive that culminated in a 25-yard field goal by Caggiano that bumped the lead to 34-12 with 2:28 left in the third quarter. Leonetti had six carries on the drive and clearly was a difference-maker in the game now that he is back to being his usual workhorse self.

"Without a doubt, he is some running back, just finding holes and slipping defenders,'' Anerella said.

Colts Neck cut the lead to 34-18 with 9:53 left in the game when Gargiulo got loose for a 38-yard touchdown run, but Manalapan put the game away after recovering a fumble at the Cougars' 25-yard line on Colts Neck's next possession. Two plays later, Anerella hit Blacknall for a 17-yard touchdown and a 41-18 lead with 5:34 to go. Will Meany later blocked a punt to set up Manalapan's final touchdown, a 5-yard run by senior Jake McCourt with 3:59 left in the game.

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The Braves can clinch a tie for their fourth straight division title with a win at Howell (3-3) on Nov. 8 and win it outright by beating winless Marlboro on Thanksgiving. Their sights are set on bigger things, as a state championship is the only gap in their impressive resume in recent years.

"We're still not where we need to be,'' Anerella said. "There's turnovers that we have to cut down on. We're not 100 percent yet, and once we're 100 percent, we're going to be tough to beat."

 

Box score

Manalapan 48, Colts Neck 18

.                                       M                   C

First downs                   13                   7

Rushes-yards            35-168            33-94

Passing                      9-17-1            3-16-1

Passing yards             127                  96

Fumbles-lost              2-2                   2-2

Penalties                   1-15                  4-20

Colts Neck (5-1, 2-1)   12 0 0 6 - 18

Manalapan (6-0, 4-0)    14 14 6 14 - 48

Scoring summary

M: Leonetti 20-yard run (Caggiano kick).

C: A. Gargiulo 49-yard pass from Sanchez (kick blocked).

M: Cheung 91-yard kickoff return (Caggiano kick).

C: A. Gargiulo 38-yard interception return (run failed).

M: Blacknall 9-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

M: Blacknall 25-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

M: Caggiano 31-yard field goal.

M: Caggiano 25-yard field goal.

C: A. Gargiulo 38-yard run (pass failed).

M: Blacknall 17-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

M: McCourt 5-yard run (Caggiano kick).

Individual statistics

Rushing - M: Leonetti 30-162, Rivera 1-0, McCourt 3-11, Anerella 1-(-5). C: Sanchez 14-(-20), Ververka 1-0, Quddus 2-25, A. Gargiulo 14-87, Russo 2-2.

Passing - M: Anerella 9-17-1 127. C: Sanchez 3-16-1 96.

Receiving - M: Blacknall 6-68, Leonetti 1-34, Cruz 1-10, Barone 1-15. C: A. Gargiulo 1-49, Russo 1-9, Calabro 1-38.

Interceptions - M: Sciarappa 1-8.