If the sign of a good football team is that they can beat other good football teams without expending their best effort, then, based on Friday night, Phillipsburg might be a really good football team.
To be sure, the Stateliners did a lot of things well as, like a giant garnet python, they slowly squeezed the life out of a game Ridge squad, 21-7, to win the Mid-State 38 Delaware Division championship in front of a big and noisy crowd at the Red Devils’ Lee Field.
But Phillipsburg senior defensive lineman Tony Rivera, who to the admittedly untrained eye played a huge role in holding Ridge’s tricky Wing-T attack to 59 yards -- 1.8 yards a carry -- might have spoken for many Stateliners when he said, “I could have done a lot better.”
Senior quarterback and tri-captain Jack Stagaard (6-for-18 passing, 54 yards, 1 TD; 9 carries, 20 yards) was even blunter.
“I really wasn’t happy with the way I played tonight,” he said.
Phillipsburg, ranked No. 4 in the region by lehighvalleylive. has looked better this fall, true. But the Stateliners (6-1, 5-0 division) did well enough to handle a previously unbeaten team on its home field with a championship on the line.
Just imagine what Phillipsburg might do if they all play they way they think they can -- but hold that thought, as the Stateliners are off next week and won’t return to action until Nov. 2 in a North Group 4 playoff game at Maloney Stadium.
“We’ll take a couple of days off, rest up, though we don’t want to take our foot too much off the throttle,” said Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy, who seemed much more pleased with his team’s effort than a lot of his players were.
So here’s a look at 13 ups-and-downs of a good football team on, perhaps, a bit of an off night.
UP: Running game (eventually)
It took a while, but the Stateliners eventually established an effective ground game, finishing with 185 yards and two touchdowns, both by junior h-back Bobby Coury, of 27 and 29 yards; he finished as P’burg’s leading rusher with 84 yards.
“The offensive line, every one of those guys, couldn’t have done a better job,” Coury said.
Phillipsburg ground down Ridge after the half.
“I was pleased with how we were eventually got the ground game going,” Duffy said.
But don’t take Coury’s or Duffy’s word for it.
Ridge junior defensive back Cam Lloyd told Harry Frezza of mycentraljersey.com that (Phillipsburg) runs with an edge. They are physical and they will do anything to get that extra yard.”
DOWN: Ridge's first drive
It looked as if the Stateliners might be in serious trouble when the hosts, running their shifty, deceptive but powerful Wing-T offense, roared 64 yards in nine balanced, efficient plays to lead 7-0 on the game’s opening possession.
It really looked easy. Too easy.
“I think on that first drive, we got a chance to see what they were doing,” Rivera said. “Once we figured out what they were doing, we were able to tighten up.”
UP: P'burg 'D' after the first drive
Rivera may have been exactly right. After that drive of 64 yards on 9 plays, Ridge managed 181 on 51 snaps.
Ridge’s bruising (6-2, 205 pounds) junior fullback Christian Sweeney came in averaging 7.2 yards a carry (825 yards, 115 trips). Against the Stateliners, he averaged 2.8 (15 carries, 42 yards).
“We don’t play against Wing-T teams too often (of late, not at all),” said Bobby Coury, who plays middle linebacker. “That first drive had a lot of things we hadn’t seen before.”
Once Phillipsburg saw them, it was lights out for the Blue Devils.
Coury praised the defensive line’s play where Rivera, senior end Joseph Kowalczyk, senior nose guard Khyree Wallace and junior end Daniel Pantuson really stood out.,
“The line couldn’t have done better,” Coury said. “They got a great push-back.”
Rivera, who showed remarkable athleticism in staying so low while still generating great power and making two tackles for loss and a sack, credited the coaching staff, led by defensive coordinator Chris Hull.
“We had a great game plan,” he said. “Coaches repped everything they did for us so well, it turned out to be easy to stop.”
Coury and senior Mark Zgoda also put on a clinic at middle linebacker against the Wing-T.
UP: Jack Stagaard running
Stagaard ran for some key second-half yardage, especially on the Stateliner third-quarter scoring drive. And he lowered the boom on Ridge tacklers in his best imitation of John Riggins.
“Jack didn’t have a great night passing, so he decided to use his legs,” Duffy said. “He likes to lower his shoulder. I think sometimes he thinks he is a linebacker.”
An angry one.
“I was (ticked off) with how I was passing,” Stagaard said. “I wasn’t trying to go out of bounds.”
DOWN: Jack Stagaard passing
Stagaard’s self-assessment of throwing was correct. He missed on 12 of his 18 passes, often badly -- he overthrew Joe Green on a perfectly-setup screen that might have been a TD -- and missed other open receivers. He never really found a rhythm, despite completing a 7-yard TD pass to senior tight end Sterling Walker-Sutton for the clinching score in the third quarter.
On the other hand, Stagaard didn’t take a sack, did not fumble,and was not intercepted.
So it was not all bad.
UP: Phillipsburg defense on fourth down
Ridge lined up to go for fourth downs five times.
The first time, the Red Devils stopped themselves with a false start and they punted instead.
Three of the other four times Phillipsburg put up the stop sign.
4th-and-3 at the Stateliner 13, late second quarter: junior linebacker Isaiah Craighead blows up the play with a speed rush and his position/classmate Robert Martin recorded a sack. “I had the chills on that play,” Craighead said.
4th-and-1 at the P’burg 40, early fourth-quarter: Zgoda and Kowalczyk bury Sweeney for no gain.
4th-and-5 at Ridge 30, late fourth quarter, OK, Red Devils got that one.
4th-and-1 at the Stateliner 26, late fourth quarter, last chance for Ridge: Craighead, who said he was able to make a read that said “toss” to him and read his keys that way using “eye discipline”, proved absolutely correct and crushed Sweeney for a four-yard loss.
DOWN: Phillipsburg defense on third down.
Ridge made six of these, including a second-half third-and-20 that allowed the Red Devils to overcome an 11-yard sack by Kowalczyk.
UP: Mike Gomez's acrobatics
Faced with some poor snaps, the Phillipsburg junior punter avoided disaster and got every punt off.
DOWN: Those poor snaps
The fact that Gomez had to scramble at all. And a bad snap cost Phillipsburg its first extra point.
“That’s something we have to work on,” said Duffy with a grim face.
UP: Phillipsburg defensive speed
Ridge had almost no luck attacking the perimeter, thanks in no small part to what Duffy called his team’s “fanatical” speed.
Case in point: a Ridge screen pass that might have been something turned into a 9-yard loss when Zgoda, running side-to-side like a leopard in pursuit of dinner, chased receiver Lloyd so far backwards that Craighead was able to drop him for the big loss.
Indeed, Phillipsburg made the toss, a key Wing-T weapon, completely ineffective.
UP: Bobby Coury trap
Two first-half traps to Coury, TDs of 27 and 29 yards as he exploded through the trap blocks.
With Ridge keying on senior tailback Joe Green (20 carries, 79 yards) the path was open for Coury, and he didn’t miss.
“Everybody keys on Joe and why wouldn’t you, he’s the man,” Coury said. “With the job the line did, and the tight ends down the field, anybody could have busted it.”
Phillipsburg tried the play one more time, and only a shoestring tackle by Ridge that just tripped Coury up saved another big play.
UP: Mr. Clean mascot for Phillipsburg
No problem on those fronts for the Stateliners.
The lack of laundry just one week after Phillipsburg was flagged nine times for 100 yards against Westfield brought a smile to Duffy’s face and shines a light on how effective he and his staff are every day.
UP: Turnover ratio, thanks to Tommy
Bobby’s twin brother Tommy Coury gave P’burg a 1-0 turnover ratio -- a statistic Duffy really looks at -- all by himself in the second quarter.
On a kickoff return by Ridge’s Brendan Bell, Coury: a) made the hit
b) made the strip
c) made the recovery.
Now that’s making the play.
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.