Toms River North powers past Edison to make history and reach first Group 5 state championship game
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP -- Since stepping on the field in late August for a Week 0 game, Toms River North has been one of the most remarkable teams in all of New Jersey. The Mariners' dominance has been so consistent that winning by 28 points seems like just another ordinary 48 minutes of football. Even in the state semifinals.
Junior quarterback Micah Ford was electric once again with 291 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 30 carries, plus a touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion as the Mariners rolled to a 42-14 victory over Edison in the NJSIAA Group 5 semifinals on Saturday night at Cherokee High School.
Ford had touchdown runs of 52, 2, 7, and 17 yards in the first half when Toms River North built a commanding 28-0 lead and then opened the third quarter scoring with a 15-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Tareq Council. In the fourth quarter after Edison scored twice to stop the running clock, Ford scored on a 16-yard run to put the game out of reach for the Eagles. Junior running back Josh Moore added 76 yards rushing as the Mariners' offensive line asserted its will on another opponent.
Junior defensive back Jeremiah Pruitt and sophomore defensive lineman Jaelyne Matthews had interceptions and senior Nasir McDougald recorded a sack as the Mariners' defense limited a dangerous Edison offense led by senior quarterback Matt Yascko. The Eagles' quarterback entered the game with over 1,700 yards passing and over 500 yards rushing and was limited to 12 of 24 passing for 164 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and held to 30 yards rushing.
Toms River North is now 13-0 and the first team in Shore Conference history to win 13 games in a season. The Mariners had already broken the Shore Conference single-season points record with 590 points through 12 games, and with another unstoppable offensive performance have now scored 632 points for an average of 48.6 points per game.
Toms River North will play in the final game of the 2022 season when they close out championship weekend at Rutgers University. The Mariners will play Passaic Tech (11-2) in the inaugural NJSIAA Group 5 state championship game at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4.
"It's hard to beat a team twice (North defeated Edison in last season's sectional semifinals) and I feel like we demolished that saying," Ford said. "We put in the work all week and we were in the right positions on offense and defense. We played probably our best football game as a team."
It wasn't all touchdowns and high-fives for the Mariners, however.
There was an ugly incident in the second half that resulted in a mele in the end zone and one player from each team being ejected. With Toms River North leading 35-7 on the final play of the third quarter, Edison sophomore running back Nyekir Eato took a handoff from his own 12-yard line and sprinted to the end zone. He was tackled at the 1-yard line by Toms River North's Tareq Council and that's when the fight began. Toms River North contends that Eato grabbed at the facemask of Council and tried to rip his helmet off and later kicked him in the face. Council was observed on the sideline after the play with a facemask that was partially ripped off. Multiple additional on-field players from each team then became involved before the officials were able to separate the teams relatively quickly.
When everything was sorted out, multiple flags against each team offset each other and both Eato and Council were ejected from the game. The game resumed at the start of the fourth quarter with Edison at the Toms River North 1-yard line, and the Eagles scored on the next play to make it a 35-14 game.
Edison's season is complete, so any possible punishment for Eato would be enforced next season. Council, however, could miss the Group 5 championship game. Typically that would be the case assuming the player is written up for the disqualification but Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz said that is to be determined.
"We don't know exactly if they wrote him up or not for the final and I'll have to see the video of the play," Oizerowitz said. "It was chippy all night. Obviously, I'm not pleased. Tareq Council is an incredible player and a great kid and for me, I didn't feel like (the ejection) was warranted but they were trying to get control of the game and they made the call. Our football team is deep and we have guys who can step up, but he's a great football player."
"I'm not putting blame on either side; it was a competitive game and it's football, it's a semi-combat sport and things can happen. I just feel so bad for Tareq because he's such a big part of this team."
The first half was all Toms River North needed to put the game away and showcase exactly how they've bludgeoned teams for 13 straight games. The Mariners scored on their first four possessions and their fifth came to a close only because the half ended. They ran 31 total plays, 29 of which came on the ground, and gained 12 first downs.
The first possession saw the Mariners pick up 13 yards to move near midfield before Ford cracked open a 52-yard touchdown run for a quick 7-0 lead.
Edison picked up one first down on its first possession before getting stopped on fourth and 1 at its own 45-yard line. That defensive stand by the Mariners led to a methodical 10-play drive that ended with Ford scoring on a 2-yard run for a 14-0 advantage.
The Eagles put together a solid drive on their second series starting from their own 35-yard line. Yascko connected with his top target, senior wideout Malcolm Stansbury, for 18 yards on first down and later in the drive found Stansbury for a 21-yard gain on third and 10 down to the Toms River North 12-yard line. On the next play, however, Matthews, made a tremendous play when he used his 6-foot-7, 300-pound frame to tip Yascko's pass, intercept it, and return it out near midfield - while running over a few Edison tacklers in the process.
Matthews is a four-star offensive line recruit with scholarship offers from Georgia, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee, Miami, and six other FBS programs.
The Mariners' offense wasted no time cashing in the turnover for points as Ford ran for 28 yards on second down to put the ball at the Edison 13. Two plays later he was into the end zone on a 7-yard touchdown run for a 21-0 lead with 7:55 left in the first half.
A combined sack by McDougald and senior outside linebacker Ty Kazanowsky on third down forced Edison to punt on the next series, giving Toms River North the ball at its own 33-yard line. Seven plays later, Toms River North was back in the end zone on a 17-yard touchdown run by Ford. He also had runs of 13 and 14 yards on the drive while Pruitt added a 15-yard run on the play prior to the touchdown.
"It's like a bus clearing the way," Ford said of the Mariners' offensive line. "Those guys are amazing to me. I don't know how they do it, but they need to keep doing it."
Ford is having one of the best seasons in Shore Conference history as the quarterback of a 13-0 team that is the favorite to win a state championship. He has rushed for 2,236 yards and 33 touchdowns on an average of 10.4 yards per carry and completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,085 yards and 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Rushing for 291 yards and five touchdowns in a state semifinal game is incredible and simultaneously just another day's work for Ford.
"It doesn't surprise me," Oizerowitz said. "He's a force of nature, our offensive line is big and physical so it's tough to get off a block, and then to tackle him; it's just a lot for anybody."
Edison received the second-half kickoff and began at its own 37-yard line, but went nowhere on three downs and lined up to punt from its own 38. The Eagles called a fake punt with Eato looking for running room but the Mariners sniffed it out and Kazanowsky dropped him behind the line of scrimmage for an 8-yard loss. On the first play after the turnover on downs, Ford connected with Council over the middle for a 15-yard touchdown and a 35-0 lead that began the mercy-rule running clock.
Edison made it interesting for a bit, first by marching 70 yards in nine plays to break Toms River North's shutout and make it 35-7. Yascko hit converted a fourth and 8 with an 11-yard pass to Rickey Harvey and then connected with Michael Strachan for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
The Eagles then recovered the onside kick and moved in for their second touchdown, which occurred one play after the fight. Yascko scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak to cut Toms River North's lead to 35-14.
Toms River North answered on the next drive with Ford rushing for 29 yards, Moore running for seven yards, and then Ford providing the finishing touch with a 16-yard touchdown run. An interception by Pruitt on the next series allowed Toms River North to run out the clock and remain undefeated.
Next up is a chance at history. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, actually.
Winning an overall state championship is now the pinnacle of New Jersey high school football. The days of winning a sectional final and calling it a season are over. Now, we play down to one champion in each group size. Just seven teams will hoist trophies and win their final games of the season over these next two championship weekends, and Toms River North can be one of them.
Those titles will be prestigious every season, but being among the first can only be done once. For the Mariners, it's one more win for a lifetime of memories.
"It doesn't mean anything just to go there," Ford said. "If we win then it would be great. We have a chance to make history as a football team so I just want to get my team there and win, and then I'll be satisfied."