ANATOMY OF A ROUT: HOW PHILLIPSBURG FOOTBALL DISMANTLED HILLSBOROUGH
There’s an understandable tendency to look at a football game with a 50-point margin and figure, well, how could just a handful of plays or situations or advantages make that much a difference? One team was just a lot better, right? Yes, and then no, as Phillipsburg’s 56-6 trouncing of host Hillsborough in Friday night’s Mid-State 38 Delaware Division game proves.
Sure, the Stateliners (5-1 overall, 4-0 division) were the better team, without a doubt.
But the score was only 14-0 at the half, and the Raiders (3-3, 2-3) had the ball in Phillipsburg territory three times in the first two quarters. So the game might have been different.
But Phillipsburg, ranked No. 6 in the region by lehighvalleylive.com, made sure it wasn’t. The Stateliners made the game theirs in every way with confidence running as rampant as they did.
“I just want to play another game right now,” Stagaard said. “I wish we could play Westfield (next week’s opponent) now.”
Here’s the seven-part anatomy of a rout -- how the Stateliners turned a contest into no
1. Starting strike
Phillipsburg put Hillsborough on its heels from the opening whistle.
On the first play from scrimmage, senior quarterback Jack Stagaard and senior wide receiver Ray Stem hooked up for on a perfect 64-yard deep post route for a touchdown that had the visitors up 7-0 19 seconds into the game.
“I think when you score like that on the first play, it’s only seven points, but it gets the other team thinking ‘uh-oh, it may be a long night,’,”, said Stagaard who threw for 268 yards on the night.
The play could not have been executed any better. The Phillipsburg offensive line stood tall and let Stagaard wait for the play to develop. Stem achieved separation downfield. The pass caught Stem in perfect stride and he outraced the defense from there.
It could not have been drawn up more perfectly by Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy and his staff.
“We knew (Hillsborough) would go hard on the run,” Duffy said. “We knew that play would be there. Jack did a great job of getting the ball out there and Ray made a phenomenal run.”
Stagaard said it went like it did in practice.
“We’d been going over that play all week,” he said. “It was the perfect play call. I saw the linebacker come up and I knew Ray would make it, and he made a great run.”
“It was a really good throw,” Stem said. “It went just like in practice.”
2. Injuries give/take
Injuries are a fact of life in football, but the two teams went in different directions Friday night.
Hillsborough missed sophomore tailback Sean Levonaitis, who had run for 757 yards, 8.1 yards per carry, and 10 TDs on the season. Duffy had called perhaps one of the best, if not the best, back the Stateliners would face all season.
Meanwhile Phillipsburg got back senior Nasir Ball. Ball didn’t catch a pass, but had two excellent kick returns that helped scoring drives (including a 29-yarder before the opening play) and was a presence on defense.
Take Ball away, add Levonaitis, and who knows? It surely might have kept the score closer.
3. Chemistry creation
Stem does not catch that many passes - with the two he had Friday the senior has 11 receptions in six games.
But five of them are for touchdowns, and he and Stagaard seem to have the kind of special bond that can sometimes unite a quarterback and wideout (see Brady, Tom and Welker, Wes).
That showed on Stem’s second catch of the day, a 29-yarder for a TD that opened Phillipsburg’s 28-point third quarter.
“That wasn’t the route that was called,” said Stem, who is Stagaard’s backup, which may explain their chemistry. “I came back in the huddle and told Jack that if he hit me on the play I’d score so I ran up the seam and made the play. Good thing I did because I’d catch hell in film from Coach if it didn’t work. I was really happy.”
Without their special bond, perhaps that pass goes awry and it says 14-0 longer and perhaps the game is different.
“We all know that Jack’s going to put the ball right where it needs to be, anywhere on the field,” Stem said.
4. Takeaway triumphs
Duffy has been preaching all season that his defense needed more takeaways, often pointing out a turnover ratio he found inadequate.
The Stateliner defense finally delivered in major fashion on that front Friday with two interceptions, by junior linebacker Bobby Coury and sophomore linebacker Jacob Hille, and two recovered fumbles, by senior defensive end Joseph Kowalczyk and junior defensive lineman Daniel Pantuso.
All lead directly to scores, very directly in Coury’s case with a 57-yard pick six. Hille ran his interception back skillfully to the Raider 1, and he deserved having his number called to score on the next play. Kowalczyk’s recovery at the hosts’ 11 and Pantuso’s at the Raider 22 led to short TDs runs by senior tailback Joe Green (18 carries, 66 yards, 2 TDs) and junior running back Matt Quetel.
The turnover ratio wound up at plus-3, and without the takeaways the game would have been close in the second half.
5. In a rush
The takeaways came in no small part from the best rush of the season from Phillipsburg.
Hillsborough senior quarterback Matthew Popadiuk has a strong arm and some skilled receivers in wideout Tawe Tawe and tight end Thomas Zdroik. Had he had time in the pocket Popadiuk could have caused some real damage.
But he rarely had that time with Stateliner defenders buzzing around him like yellow jackets to a sweet soda can. Senior linebacker Mark Zgoda and senior defensive end Kyree Wallace split three sacks, two passes were batted down, and Kowalczyk, Coury and company were romping in the Raider backfield all night.
“I think in the past we were going 80 percent on the pass rush and we weren’t getting a really good push,” Wallace said. “Tonight we played 100 percent on the pass rush. I felt good to get in there and get the quarterback, and we know when we do our job as pass rushers it makes the job of the linebackers and secondary easier.”
That’s especially true when the disciplined rush collapsed the pocket to prevent Popadiuk’s escape. He’s a skilled scrambler and could have done damage with his legs but all too often he had nowhere to go.
“We had to keep our pass-rushing integrity,” Wallace said.
6. Quick hits
Phillipsburg was 8-for-8 on extra points, seven by junior Mike Gomez, one by senior Colby Johnson.
Green’s hard-driving legs turned some short gains into key yards. “The pile just moves with him,” said one Hillsborough veteran in the press box. “And he’s not a big guy.” But he runs like one.
The Stateliners posted a seven-minute second-quarter scoring drive, kept alive by Duffy’s gamble on 4th-and-4 at the Raider 41 where Stagaard hit senior tight end Sterling Walker-Sutton for a 16-yard gain.
Phillipsburg’s kick coverage was excellent, setting up Kowalczyk’s fumble recovery by dropping Hillsborough’s Dylan Bozcon at his own 5 on a kickoff.
7. Adding it up
It all adds up to 56-6 and the best performance of the season for Phillipsburg.
And the rout puts a lot of wind in the Stateliners’ sails.
“I can’t wait to get back to Maloney (for Westfield) and Senior Night,” Stagaard said.
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.