Point Boro quarterback Charlie Vitale never envisioned getting the starting call from head coach Brian Staub in just his sophomore season. The Panthers run a complex version of the flexbone triple option and haven’t had the luxury of grooming a young quarterback in some time. This may have all changed in spectacular fashion for Point Boro in a 23-13 Week 0 win over Barnegat.

While there were certainly some tense moments for Vitale, an unexpected security blanket emerged in the form of senior wide receiver Sam Young to save the day. Already leaving his mark on the Panthers’ basketball and baseball programs, Sam and twin brother Cole decided to add football to the workload in their final academic year. Vitale will be forever thankful for that, finding his towering No. 1  receiver for a trio of touchdowns on opening night.

Each scoring strike from Vitale seemed to hang in the air for a tantalizing amount of time. On the receiving end of them, Young knew exactly what was needed of him to provide a spark for the Panthers, tormenting the Barnegat secondary when presented with single coverage. Dropping his first slant target of the game on a ball thrown slightly behind him, Young used this as motivation to sky for touchdowns of 20, 70, and finally 15 yards in Point Boro’s season-opening win.

Mistakes that plagued the Panthers through a 3-6 season a year ago were evident in this contest still, but a relentless defense paired with heroics from Vitale proved their mental toughness in a grind-it-out win.

Point Boro returns just two starters on defense but found the type of resolve that veteran teams do when in need of a stop on their home turf. The Boro defense was never frustrated by sputtering drives from their offense, capitalizing on Barnegat penalties and miscues while keying on a ground game led by TJ Crudup.

Following a Boro turnover on downs inside the red zone, Crudup would get the best of the Panthers defense for a 63-yard gallop on third and 15. Catching a swing pass behind the line, Crudup weaved through arm tackles and somehow found an opening to set up first and goal for Barnegat.

Bengals quarterback Matt Vernieri wasted no time following his blocks to paydirt, getting the road team off to a hot start at 6-0.

Point Boro would turn the ball over on downs on the ensuing possession. Doing so deep in Barnegat territory, the pivotal battle of field position in this game was nearly lost by the Panthers following a costly facemask penalty. The Bengals were marching out of their own end of the field before a fumble recovered by the timely Panthers defense created the first momentum swing in the game.

Known for grinding out games on the ground, the Panthers rushing attack did just enough. Colby Biggs benefited from a massive push up front on a 14-yard gain that set up Boro’s go-ahead score before halftime. Biggs refused to go down on first contact throughout the night, running with a toughness that should earn him more carries in Boro’s option look as the backfield develops.

nstead of throwing the ball behind Sam Young this time, Vitale simply gave his big receiver a chance on another slant pattern. Young reached well above his head to pluck the pass, sticking his foot in the ground and dragging his defender across the goal line for six.

Cole Young may have been quiet as the receiver opposite Sam all night, but he ensured Boro would hold this 7-6 lead into the half by intercepting Vernieri on Barnegat’s final drive. Strong man coverage from a dynamic Panthers secondary frustrated Vernieri at the right times, forcing the Bengals to adjust in the second half.

Both Young twins are starters at safety for Point Boro, reading the run well to give the Panthers the extra numbers needed in the box to stop a balanced attack from Rob Davis’ Bengals.

The Bengals would get all the time they needed on offense to work their adjustments at the start of the third. Point Boro muffed the opening kickoff, and an opportunity to add to its lead, with Barnegat recovering at the 20-yard line.

Turning the tides of their red zone woes from early in the game, Boro came up with a stand of their own to prevent disaster early in the half. Cody Sullivan made the third-down stop that led to a partially blocked field goal off the foot of Matt Xiques.

This wouldn’t be the only time Boro’s defense was asked to make an escape act in the third quarter, with the offensive line struggling to keep a tough Bengals front at bay. Vitale proved to be one of the Panthers’ most reliable rushers as well, but with defenders collapsing on him, Vitale was stopped on a third-down keeper to force a three and out. The next series for Vitale produced similar results through the air, forced out of the pocket to throw well short of the sticks on another three and out.

In between these lightning-quick drives for Point Boro, Vernieri frustrated their defense with patient rollouts and gritty runs through bigger defenders. A 10-yard scramble for Vernieri turned into a 25-yard play, as the Panthers committed a costly helmet-to-helmet penalty. Later in the drive, from three yards out, Vernieri followed the anchor of his line, Griffin Jackstadt, for another walk-in touchdown. Up 13-7, Barnegat was in control with a senior quarterback heating up and a defense imposing its will against the run.

Vitale’s debut was becoming an afterthought on the Point Boro bench as Vernieri moved the Bengals offense up to the Boro 30-yard line with time running off in the fourth. The Panthers continued to fly to the ball on defense and were rewarded when the Bengals opted to take the ball out of Vernieri’s hands on a crucial fourth down. Tossing to Crudup, the Barnegat runner was forced back inside and tripped up short of a first down.

At the very least, Barnegat had shortened the game and flipped field position with just over nine minutes to play. Point Boro responded by finding a quick strike on offense, as Vitale took a short drop and looked for Young on the Panthers’ sideline. Once again in single coverage with no safety help, Young tracked the ball away from his man and broke free easily to dash 70 yards. His second touchdown of the night electrified his bench, and the Boro faithful in all black on the home side, to tie the game at 13.

Very suddenly, Vitale became the poised and confident quarterback his team would need to close out a formidable Barnegat opponent. Another costly penalty ignited a Barnegat drive into Boro territory, but not long after their possession was lost on a fumble recovered by Nick Tuzzolino.

Tuzzolino, once in line to start at QB for the Panthers, came up with the timely recovery and was there to pick up his quarterback on the next set of downs. After Vitale threw incomplete on second down, Tuzzolino moved the chains on third and short. Rarely getting out of the backfield on his previous attempts, Tuzzolino stopped on a dime at the line of scrimmage and changed directions to move the chains, a subtle play that went such a long way towards the Panthers’ comeback.

Young freeing himself down the sideline again for 26 yards set up a Joey Picolli field goal from 30 yards out. For the second straight drive, Point Boro showed a dangerous balance to the offense, coming away with a 16-13 lead.

Picolli followed his first field goal of the season with a kickoff that pinned Barnegat deep, before nearly creating the decisive play on defense. Vernieri’s costliest throw of the night came out of his own end zone, a deflected ball that Picolli picked off and returned for a touchdown. However, a block in the back penalty ensured that Sam Young would be the story of Week 0 for Point Boro.

Picolli was awarded one of Boro’s two game balls following the game, the other understandably going to Young.

A defensive touchdown off the board, the Panthers were in position to run the clock and create another score from the Barnegat 11-yard line. Backed up to the Bengals’ 15, Vitale looked for Young one more time on a rainbow pass that dropped out of the sky in the back of the end zone. Young was there, timing the catch to perfection as if he and Vitale were the only ones on the field. His third touchdown of the night sealed the game for Boro, claiming the 23-13 advantage that Brian Staub’s team held onto.

“He’s ready for this,” proclaimed Young when discussing his sophomore quarterback after the game. Vitale became the first quarterback for Point Boro to throw three touchdowns in a game since 2006 when another sophomore in Shane O’Connor did so against Raritan. This remarkable achievement didn’t come without plenty for the Panthers to clean up, be it special teams miscues or defensive penalties.

The road won’t get any easier in the short term for Vitale either, as Boro travels to Donovan Catholic next week. For a Boro team that let plenty of similar games slip away last year, some time should be put aside to appreciate the resolve their young quarterback showed though – creating an instant star in senior Sam Young.


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