Just call them Air Duffy.
The Stateliners (9-0), known best for their smash-mouth, physical football, turned to the air to bomb the Millers (2-7) in a sectional quarterfinal in front of a well-chilled crowd in the icebox that was Maloney Stadium Friday night.
Junior quarterback Jack Stagaard completed 12 of 16 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns as top-seeded Phillipsburg advanced to the section semifinals.
The Stateliners will host No. 4 seed Irvington (7-2), which rallied to defeat No. 5 seed Linden 16-13 Friday night, in next Friday’s semis.
Stagaard set the tone on Phillipsburg’s first possession of the game. Facing a 3rd-and-8 form their own 32, he found senior tight end Sean Morro romping alone in the Millburn secondary. Morro made a fine running catch, stayed in stride and rolled 68 yards to the end zone to give the Stateliners a lead they never lost.
“Jack led me really well,” said Morro, who finished with three catches for 127 yards and two scores. “It felt nice to take that one all the way to the end zone.”
Stagaard was equally pleased.
“It felt good to hit some of the throws finally we have been missing all year,” said Stagaard, who later hooked up with Morro again for a 34-yard score and tossed a perfect 7-yard fade route to sophomore Ray Poremba, whose magic hands made a tough play look easy, for his three touchdowns.
“Ray’s hands are huge,” said Stagaard with a laugh. “And he has such a sense of knowing where the ball is.”
Stagaard enjoyed perfect protection all night. He could have a three-course meal in the pocket on many passes, and was hardly bothered at all. It was quite a night for the Stateliner pass blockers,
“Pass blocking was something we wanted to get better at ourselves in the off-season,” said senior center Patrick Sharpe. “It’s great for us to be able to give Jack all that time, especially when you see the beautiful throws he makes. We took it upon ourselves to become pass blockers. We really trust each other up front.”
Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy could have done without two turnovers, some dropped passes and a blocked extra point. But he liked the passing game overall.
“The kids had some nice catches today,” he said. “We knew we’d have some chances to be successful throwing and we took advantage of our opportunities.”
Turning point: The Millers had scored in the second quarter to close within 21-7. Millburn then recovered a fumble on their own 38 and marched smartly to the Stateliner 31. Another Miller touchdown there would have perhaps induced heartburn in Phillipsburg stomachs, But on second down and eight from the 31, junior linebacker Mark Zgoda broke on a crossing route, tipped the ball up in the air and hauled it in for a threat-killing interception at the 1:40 mark of the half that stopped ‘Liner fans from passing around antacid tablets.
Top performer: OK, there was the one interception, which Stagaard said “would haunt” him for a while when he tried to force a ball into a crowd near the Millers’ goal line near the end of the second quarter. But otherwise he was almost-perfect in the air and was very effective picking up 4th downs on some well-executed sneaks. Fans can also see Stagaard improving almost with every snap.
What it means: Phillipsburg stands two wins away from its No. 2 goal of the season -- a state championships. The Stateliners showed they can strike through the air when teams load up to stop the run. And P’burg needs three more wins for an unbeaten season – which now appears to be a reasonable goal.
Brad Wilson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.