Phillipsburg overcame injuries, penalties and a rugged North Hunterdon defense to capture the much-awaited showdown of unbeatens in front of an overflow crowd at Maloney Stadium Friday night.
The Stateliners started the game without of one of their top players in senior linebacker/tight end Sean Morro, lost top runner junior Joe Green on the first series to an arm injury, and saw the referees flag them seven times for 65 yards, some of the calls spectacularly badly timed.
“I just knew with the kind of guys we have we’d rise to the occasion,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “I knew we were prepared. A game like tonight’s is what high school football is all about. North Hunterdon is a good team and (coach) Jared Mazzetta is doing a great job with them. But this was pure Phillipsburg football. We’re built for big games.”
Phillipsburg got big games on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they held a North Hunterdon (7-1) offense that had been averaging 30.4 points a game to a touchdown, and limited the Lions’ gifted quarterback, senior Matt Busher, to a 12-for-21 passing game for just 63 yards and intercepted him twice. Overall, North was held to 101 total yards with its longest play from scrimmage good for 12 yards.
“I didn’t play my best and I am not proud of this,” said Busher, who was relentlessly harassed by the Phillipsburg pass rush of Jalen Boothman, Jaleel Boothman, Zach Leong and Nick Josselyn all night. “Our defense was lights-out and my line did great. They shut us down tonight and I didn’t think anybody could do that.”
On offense, Phillipsburg junior quarterback Jack Stagaard completed 8 of 12 passes for 125 yards and touchdowns of 34 and 20 yards to junior wideout Nasir Ball, the latter clinching the game in the third quarter as the fleet Ball left North’s veteran secondary behind.
“Once I get in the get in the open field, no one is tackling me,” Ball said.
Stagaard just liked the win, in which Phillipsburg, once again, did not turn the ball over. The Stateliners have just two turnovers all year.
“Stats don’t mean anything to me,” said Stagaard, whose leadership was effusively praised by Duffy. “It’s about helping the team win.”
Phillipsburg’s opening drive consumed over seven minutes of the first quarter as the Stateliners marched 59 yards in 15 plays, but it ended on downs when North senior linebacker Erik Dehkes stacked up Green's replacement, sophomore Abdul Salahuddin (30 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD) for no gain on 4th-and-2 from the Lions' 4.
But the Lions could manage just one first down after the big defensive stand, and Sterling Walker-Sutton returned the ensuing punt 23 yards to the North Hunterdon 31. On the next play, Stagaard connected with Ray Poremba for a 30-yard gain down the seam to the 1, and Salahuddin scored from the 2 on the first play of the second quarter.
The Lions entered Phillipsburg territory on their next drive, to the Stateliner 45, but a big hit by junior linebacker Mark Zgoda and a intentional grounding penalty killed that march.
The Stateliners then made it 14-0 when Ball turned on his rocket shoes and roared 34 yards with a screen pass from Stagaard to cap a 54-yard drive with a score at 5:08 left in the half.
North Hunterdon answered, though, with a 65-yard TD drive fueled by Busher’s running on designed plays and a 12-yard strike to Jared McMahon, capped by a Busher 4-yard TD run with 1:11 to go in the quarter to make it 14-7 at the half. Little did the visitors know the pass to McMahon would be their biggest gain of the night.
The Lion drive was also helped immensely by two personal foul penalties on the Stateliners, one for unsportsmanlike conduct and the other for roughing the passer. The latter erased an interception in the end zone by Stateliner senior defensive back Justyce Branch, though Branch would get a pick in the fourth quarter that stood up.
“I am counting it as two interceptions,” said Branch with a laugh.
After a win like Friday’s, the Stateliners could feel as if they’d earned a bonus.
Turning point: A sequence on Phillipsburg’s first possession of the second half sent the Stateliners on to victory. The Stateliners faced 3rd down and 10 from the North 48, and Lion senior cornerback Colin Lavigne broke quickly on Stagaard’s pass to Poremba and almost had a pick-6, But he could only tip the ball up and towards the sideline – where Poremba hauled it in like a tip-drill in practice for 11 yards and a first down. Four plays later Stagaard found Ball for the decisive touchdown.
North Hunterdon top performers: Dehkes and senior defensive Kyle Hensler combined for double digits in tackles and rattled Stateliner cages all night, “Our defense was lights out tonight, they kept us in the game,” said Busher, and Dehkes and Hensler were big reasons why.
Phillipsburg top performers: This is a tough call, given how many there were to choose from. But Stagaard may have been the best, stepping up time and again to make big plays, and, remember, without Green beside him most of the game. To share with Stagaard, the offensive and defensive lines of the Stateliners, who dominated the game throughout.
What it means: Phillipsburg will almost surely be the top seed for the North 2 Group 4 sectionals. The Stateliners showed they could battle adversity and still come out tops against a very good team. It might be time to think of Stagaard as a lot more than a game manager and maybe more as an elite quarterback, because he was the best quarterback on the field. As for the Lions, if they see Phillipsburg again in the sectionals – and they may well – they’ll need to get their offense to be able to stretch the field and make big plays. As Busher said, he knows he can play better, and if he and North Hunterdon do so in the next meeting, anything’s possible.
Brad Wilson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.