HOLMDEL - Raritan's comeback from a two-touchdown hole to beat St. John Vianney 23-20 on Saturday was a concrete symbol of how the Rockets are getting back to the winning football that has characterized their program over the years.

During a rough stretch in the past season-and-a-half, the Rockets (3-5, 2-3) struggled to execute at the most important times, but they came up with one game-changing play after another to vanquish the rival Lancers (3-5, 2-4) on the road on Saturday. They gave themselves a chance at a state playoff berth in Central Jersey Group III, ultimately coming up three power points short of the eighth seed, but they showed that the pendulum is swinging back in a positive direction in Hazlet.

Junior quarterback Riley Sullivan threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns to help power Raritan's 23-20 comeback win over St. John Vianney.

After an 0-4 start, they have given themselves a chance at a .500 season with a win in their NJSIAA consolation game and a victory over Holmdel (1-7) on Thanksgiving, which would be a great leap forward after the frustration of last year's winless campaign.

"They've come a long way,'' said Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi. "They're fighters. They were given an opportunity today to show that they have heart and that they have pride. The character of the kids is just something that's special."

Raritan's comeback was led by junior quarterback Riley Sullivan and a defense that racked up six sacks, forced two turnovers and blocked a field goal. Sullivan went 14-for-20 for 217 yards and three touchdowns in the air on a day where the Rockets couldn't get anything going on the ground.

No throw was bigger than a 2-yard touchdown to junior Colby Jones on fourth-and-goal with 45 seconds left in the game that gave Raritan a 23-14 lead and sealed the win. Raritan had gone for the kill on third down by trying to throw a pop pass over the defense to the tight end, but it was incomplete and essentially gave a free timeout to St. John Vianney with the Lancers out of timeouts. Raritan decided to throw the ball again on fourth down, and the left-handed Sullivan rolled to the left and threaded a pass between two defenders to Jones for the score.

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"I just had to focus in and make the play,'' Sullivan said. "It just slipped through between a few guys."

"We thought it was either going to be a home run, or we were going to make them drive the field,'' Petruzzi said. "We decided we were going to go for the touchdown or make them go that long way with no timeouts."

The Lancers scored on their final possession when senior quarterback Billy DeMato hit wideout Julanee Prince for an 18-yard touchdown, but it came as time expired to allow the Rockets to celebrate a hard-fought victory.

Prince put the Rockets in an early hole when he beat a defender down the sideline and hauled in a 66-yard touchdown pass from DeMato with 3:44 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. It started a day in which Prince finished with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and DeMato was 14-for-21 for 228 yards and two scores in the game.

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The Lancers then made it 14-0 when senior tailback Matt Falco escaped a thicket of defenders and bounced outside for a 77-yard touchdown run with 9:48 left in the second quarter. Falco finished with a career-high 121 yards on six carries.

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Raritan had managed only 27 yards of offense in the game before it began its comeback with a 10-play, 65-yard drive. Sullivan hit senior wideout James Wines, who finished with five catches for 84 yards, with a short swing pass that he took the distance for a 25-yard touchdown to make it 14-6 before a missed extra point with 4:35 left in the second quarter.

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On St. John Vianney's ensuing possession, Jones forced a fumble that the Rockets recovered to put them in business at the Lancers' 32-yard line. Three plays later, Sullivan threw a fade to 6-foot-2 junior receiver Dylan Dewysockie, who went over a defender for a 32-yard touchdown catch that trimmed the lead to 14-13 with 2:36 left in the half.

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St. John Vianney seemed poised to answer when it drove 75 yards on six plays to Raritan's seven-yard line, but Rockets sophomore linebacker Sean Ennis made a play to completely reverse the momentum. He stepped in front of a short pass by DeMato and returned it 60 yards before DeMato chased him down from behind. That put Raritan at the Lancers' 35-yard line, and the Rockets converted it into a 29-yard field goal by Tom Pulcine as time expired in the half to take a 16-14 lead into the locker room.

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"I heard the read, and I knew he was coming my way,'' Ennis said about the interception. "It was just instinct."

"That was the biggest play of the game,'' Sullivan said. "That changed the game."

The third quarter was scoreless as St. John Vianney stopped Raritan on fourth-and-1 and third-and-one to kill two drives, while the Rockets cranked up the pass rush to sack DeMato twice for minus-19 yards in the period. Ennis, senior linebacker Tyler Jones and senior defensive lineman Pat Toal led the charge.

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"He's a good quarterback with a really good arm,'' Ennis said. "We just wanted to make him uncomfortable, get him out of the pocket and make him throw on the run."

"We had to get some pressure on him and not let him beat us,'' Petruzzi said. "We wanted to make some of their other guys step up, and I think we did an excellent job."

The Lancers had a chance to take the lead with a nine-play, 61-yard drive to start the fourth quarter. However, a touchdown run on a reverse was negated because of a holding penalty, and then Raritan senior linebacker Tyler Jones, Colby's older brother, came up with a hit for a two-yard loss on third-and-goal to force a field-goal attempt. Colby Jones then came flying in from the side and blocked it to keep Raritan in front with 7:47 left in the game.

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After the Rockets went three-and-out, the defense came up big again, sacking DeMato three times on St. John Vianney's next possession. Raritan then put the game away with a six-play, 46-yard drive helped by a 38-yard gain on a screen pass from Sullivan to senior tailback Jared Collins that set up the eventual touchdown grab by Colby Jones.

It was a satisfying victory for a team that looks to be turning the corner after some difficult times.

"It's a different mentality,'' Sullivan said. "We think we can actually win games. Coming into the season, we weren't so sure. But now we know we can finish."

Box score

Raritan 23, St. John Vianney 20

.                                     R                 S

First downs                   11             18

Rushes-yards            31-58           27-175

Passing                      14-20-0       14-21-1

Passing yards              217               228

Penalties                      6-57              1-10

Fumbles-lost                    0-0             1-1

Raritan (3-5, 2-3)              0 16 0 7 - 23

SJ Vianney (3-5, 2-4)       7   7  0  6 - 20

Scoring summary

S: Prince 66-yard pass from DeMato (Bent kick).

S: Falco 77-yard run. (Bent kick).

R: Wines 25-yard pass from Sullivan (kick failed).

R: Dewysockie 32-yard pass from Sullivan (Pulcine kick).

R: Pulcine 29-yard field goal.

R: C. Jones 2-yard pass from Sullivan (Pulcine kick)

S: Prince 18-yard pass from DeMato (kick not attempted).

Individual statistics

Rushing - S: DeMato 13-(-6), Hopkinson 8-60, Falco 6-121. R: Collins 14-33, Sullivan 12-9, T. Jones 2-2, Wines 2-11, Salerno 1-3.

Passing - S: DeMato 14-21-1 228. R: Sullivan 14-20-0 217.

Receiving - S: Bonavitacola 3-25, Prince 7-145, Ruiz 2-36, Hyman 2-22. R: Wines 5-84, Dewysockie 2-52, Cordiero 1-5, C. Jones 3-25, Collins 2-45, Sheehan 1-6.

Interceptions - R: Ennis 1-60.