For Phillipsburg, it felt more like a strapped-to-a-rocket-kaboom! start in Saturday night’s 49-7 rout of North Hunterdon in a North 2 Group 4 quarterfinal at a packed Maloney Stadium.
The Stateliners (8-1) led 21-0 after one quarter (indeed with less than nine minutes elapsed), 35-7 after two, and never took their foot off the pedal. Phillipsburg, the No. 1 seed in the section, never gave the No. 8-seeded Lions (3-6) a chance to breathe as the Stateliners set up a semifinal date with No. 5 Cranford (6-3) Friday at Maloney.
1. Three up, three down
The game’s first three possessions tell the tale.
The Lions did not have a first down on their first three possessions. The Stateliners scored three touchdowns.
The Stateliners had more yards on their first play -- a 19-yard end-around reverse by speedy senior Nasir Ball -- than North had on its first three drives combined (minus-6).
The Lions had the ball first but had they seen what was coming maybe they wouldn’t have wanted it. On the game’s opening play P’burg junior linebacker Isaiah Craighead dropped North’s Dylan Farina for a four-yard loss. On the second play, a direct snap to running back Quadree Smith was fumbled and recovered by the Stateliners’ Khyree Wallace at the Lions’ 19.
“You just can’t do that,” Lion head coach Jared Mazzetta said. “We have a tackle for a loss and a turnover and now (Phillipsburg) is all jacked up to do what they do. You can’t start like that.”
2. Take a shot
Especially when the Stateliners made North Hunterdon pay on Ball’s quasi-trick play, which is one of the few times all season P’burg has made use of end-around/reverse principles.
Maybe they should more often -- Ball made scoring look easy.
“That’s just good offense; there’s a sudden change in the game, take a shot,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “What’s the worst that can happen, it’s second down? And even if you don’t score it’s still a momentum change.”
Duffy would follow the same philosophy when Stateliner senior Jeff Vitale recovered a fumble at the Lion 29 at the 6:09 mark of the second quarter and P’burg ahead 28-7. On the next play, Duffy dialed up a Jack Stagaard to Sterling Walker-Sutton TD pass and it was 35-7.
3. Rocket ship captain
But if there was one figure who propelled the Stateliner rocket-start into the stratosphere, that man was sophomore tailback Matt Quetel.
Quetel took a flare route from Stagaard 10 yards for P’burg’s second touchdown, and went 35 furious yards with a toss play to score TD No. 3 for the ‘Liners.
“The toss is a great play,” Quetel said. “Once I saw my blocking and I got around the corner I knew I could get to the end zone.”
Quetel wound up with 88 yards on nine rushes and, somewhat unusually for a Stateliner tailback, caught 3 passes for 35 yards and looked quite comfortable in the receiving role.
“I’ve done well catching the ball in the past,” Quetel said. “We have a lot of great plays for me to catch the ball.”
Duffy said said Quetel had been excelling in junior varsity games, which, according to Stagaard, may be the understatement of the season.
“You watch Matt play JV, and you think he shouldn’t be allowed to play JV,” Stagaard said.
Quetel might not see Monday games again.
“We want to get Matt more touches and with him he we get a whole different dynamic,” Duffy said. “And we got him involved in the passing game too. Matt has a unique running style; he always keeps his legs moving.”
If Phillipsburg senior tailback Joe Green (10 carries, 56 yards on the night), who is Quetel’s half-brother, is more of a darting, slashing runner, the 5-11, 185-pound Quetel is a battering ram that pushes the pile. Thunder, perhaps, to Green’s lightning, though Quetel doesn’t lack for speed.
Of Quetel’s 88 rushing yards a solid 40 came after contact.
“It was a great feeling to run like I did today in a playoff game,” Quetel said. “I work hard at keeping my legs moving and mentally not wanting to go down.”
4. TD quartet
If Quetel was rocket-ship captain then Stagaard was first mate.
The steady senior completed 11 of 18 passes for 156 yards and four touchdowns -- 10 yards to Quetel, 10 yards to the all-over-the-field Craighead, and 11 and 29 to Walker-Sutton. As usual he was not intercepted and he took just one sack for a small loss.
“Matt can run and catch and he has the ability to do either and score,” Stagaard said. “We have a lot of guys doing whatever they can to help the team win. And I always know Sterling will get open. He runs really good patterns and we have to find him when we have the opportunities to.”
5. Defense dazzles
While Phillipsburg’s offense ran rampant, its defense made sure North did not run at all.
The Lions finished with nine yards rushing on 20 carries. The Stateliner defense recovered three fumbles, which delighted Duffy.
“Our philosophy is to create takeaways,” he said. “We keep it simple on defense so we can play fast. (Defensive coordinator) Chris Hull and his staff do a terrific job every week.”
6. Erasing a score
Phillipsburg takes defensive failures personally.
When junior defensive back Tommy Coury looks at the 49-7 score he sees one Lion score too many.
“They shouldn’t have scored at all,” said Coury with a scowl. “That touchdown was on me, I was in man-to-man coverage with him.”
Coury shouldn’t, perhaps, be too hard on himself for two reasons.
One was “him”, the North TD receiver, is Lion senior Griffin Honthy, who, as Mazzetta quite correctly said, is one of the region’s best receivers. After his six-catch, 108-yard performance Saturday Honthy has 34 catches for 663 yards and six touchdowns, so Coury isn’t the first back to give up a score to North’s little (145 pounds) big-play man.
Two, Coury made a play that kept the Lions on one score.
On the final play of the first half, Lion junior quarterback Cole Mathews (18-for-27 passing, 226 yards, 1 TD, 0 interceptions) had seemingly found senior wideout Connor Woods in the end zone -- until Coury arrived violently on the scene and leveled Woods with a hit heard back in Clinton as the ball fell to the turf.
“I’ve broke up touchdown passes before but not quite like that; that was a nice pop in the end zone,” Coury said.
7. Lion pride
Phillipsburg’s comprehensively excellent play and powerful start didn’t leave North Hunterdon much room for consolation.
Mazzetta praised his team’s run defense, the play of Mathews, who was thrown into the starting quarterback role when senior Anthony Hale injured his knee against Warren Hills, and of course Honthy, who should get serious looks for postseason honors at every level they are given.
He rued his team’s slow start Saturday, saying that made the major difference in the game.
But looking at the big picture, Mazzetta saw some positives for his squad.,
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this season, especially with injuries, and I think more than any other season I have been coaching,” he said. “The seniors did everything we asked them to do and always played hard against a schedule with (seven) playoff teams.”
Brad Wilson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.