Statistics don’t always tell the story of football games.
Or at least don’t tell it very well.
Take Saturday night’s 21-0 Phillipsburg whitewash of visiting Cranford in a NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 sectional semifinal.
Just looking at numbers, the game should have been all Cranford at the half. For example, at one point Cranford had run 34 of 35 plays on drives of 92 and 56 yards. The game felt like it could have 14-0 Cougars if not more -- but the Stateliners led, 7-0.
On the game Phillipsburg (9-1) ran one more play than the visitors but scored 21 more points.
How did the Stateliners win a game they were outplayed for so much so decisively?
Here are nine reasons why it will be Phillipsburg and not Cranford facing Irvington for the N2 G4 crown Friday
1. Sluggish start
Sterling Walker-Sutton said it best.
“We started flat, we started slow, however you want to call it,” said the Stateliner senior tight end/cornerback said.
Three of Phillipsburg’s four first-half possession did not end well.
The first, which started at the Cranford 36 after a Tommy Coury fumble recovery, ended on a punt after 4th-and-25 at the Stateliner 49.
The second made it to the Cougar 15 before penalties forced a punt on 4th-and-34.
The fourth ended in an interception in Phillipsburg territory.
“We shot ourselves in the foot offensively,” Stateliners head coach Frank Duffy said. “We were out of sync, out of rhythm in our passing game.”
2. Defensive bailout
Yet Cranford managed no points.
The Cougars (6-4) seemed sure to score with junior quarterback Connor Katz using Cranford’s run-pass option to create productive opportunities on the ground for himself and senior fullback Rob Schork, and through the air to junior wideouts Cole Blazek and Tommy Korzeneski.
Part of the Cougars’ success came from size -- Katz is 6-2, 205 pounds; Schork a punishing 6-4, 230; and Blazek 6-1, 180 and Korzeneski 6-1, 185. None of them went down on first contact.
Part of it was the scheme, a slippery, hard-to-predict offense that was varied and balanced.
“I think any time you see a new offense it takes time to adjust and a while to get up to speed,” Duffy said.
And part of stopping it was, as Stateliner senior tailback Joe Green said, “just playing Phillipsburg football.”
3. Two threats, no points
Cranford made two trips to the Phillipsburg red zone in the first half.
The first saw the Cougars reach the Stateliner 7 where the ball was knocked loose from Katz and P’burg junior linebacker Robert Martin recovered at the 14.
The second was even more dangerous.
Walker-Sutton, giving up 40 pounds, somehow muscled Schork out of bounds at the Stateliner 3-yard line on what looked like a sure-thing TD run -- talk about “playing Phillipsburg football”! -- but Cranford still had 1st-and-goal at the 3.
First down, Schork to the one piled up by a host of Stateliners.
Second down, Tommy Coury burst through and dropped Schork for a three-yard loss.
Third down, his twin, Bobby, dropped Blazek for a yard loss on a little crossing-pattern underneath.
Fourth down, one of Cranford’s six illegal procedure calls.
Fourth down redux and the Cougars miss a 27-yard field goal.
4. Deep strike
That pair of Cranford drives totaled 34 plays, 148 yards -- and no points.
Meanwhile, remember those three of four Stateliner first-half possessions that did not end well?
The fourth couldn’t have ended better.
After Martin’s fumble recovery, Phillipsburg needed one play to 86 yards to end zone as Walker-Sutton was all alone over the middle and Jack Stagaard found him in stride for six.
“After we recovered the fumble we decided to take a shot downfield,” Walker-Sutton said. “We knew their safeties and cornerbacks would bite hard on the play action, and I was right down the seam wide open.”
Maybe a little too wide open.
“In that situation you have to make sure you catch the ball first,” said Walker-Sutton with a smile. “You have to watch it into your hands.”
As it turned out, that spectacular play turned out to be a record-setter -- it was senior quarterback Jack Stagaard’s 18th touchdown pass of the season, a Phillipsburg single-season record.
Stagaard (17-for-24 passing, 264 yards, 2 TD, 1 interception) would add another TD strike to Walker-Sutton in the fourth quarter, this one for 19 yards, so the mark stands at 19 with at least two more games left.
“Stats don’t mean that much to me,” said Stagaard, which was obvious when a teammate asked him how many TD pass and he shrugged his shoulders and said. “I don’t know”. “Winning means more to me. But it was sweet to set the record on a play like that.”
6. Same old ...
So Phillipsburg led at the half almost in spite of itself, and the third quarter didn’t offer much optimism at its start.
It started with Nasir Ball muffing the kickoff and having to fall on it at the Stateliner 2-yard-line.
Some hard runs by senior tailback Joe Green, who had 17 yards in the first half, and a Cranford roughing-the-punter penalty got the Stateliners out of their own end and eventually to the Cougar 30, but they went backward from there into 3rd-and-23 (sound familiar?) and junior wide receiver Ray Poremba lost a fumble at the Cranford 28.
After a Cougar punt Stagaard was sacked twice on the next P’burg possession and the natives were getting restless.
7. Dawn breaks
And then, as if a switch was thrown, Phillipsburg grabbed the game by the throat and choked off any chance of a Cranford upset.
It started when Ball more than made up for his second-thrown kickoff miscues by slicing across Blazek on a deep route and intercepted at the Stateliner 22.
Eight plays later it was 14-0.
The first three were passes, two to Poremba, who atoned for his fumble with grabs of 10 and 19 yards.
8. Joe Green show
And it was the Joe Green show.
On first and 10 from the Cougar 43, Green took a routine handoff for what looked like a short gain.
10 yards later, having carried most of the Cranford defense with him, Green had a first down.
“Had to keep my legs working,” said Green, who ran for 103 yards after halftime. “Coach put us in great spots to make plays and the line had a great push.”
The next play saw Green rumble 18 yards to 15; two plays later he scored from the 10 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Cranford went 3-and-out on its next possession. Phillipsburg scored on its next possession on that second TD pass to Walker-Sutton, who was amazingly open on such a short field -- “Sterling always runs great routes,” Stagaard said -- and that was pretty much that, though Stateliner junior linebacker Isaiah Craighead added a highlight-reel interception later when he ripped the ball from Korzeneski’s hands.
9. Why the surge?
So what happened? How did Phillipsburg take the game over? One, Green. When the Stateliners are running the ball well, they’re hard to stop.
“Watching Joe run gives us energy,” Walker-Sutton said. “He has energy and he gives it to us.”
Two, powerhouse physicality, some of it from senior two-way lineman Jeff Vitale who was on Cougar hunt all night, to considerable effect.
“At halftime we just said, ‘Let’s run our plays’,” Vitale said. ‘I think we out-physicaled them the whole second half.”
And three, related, is the Stateliners’ second-half toughness.
“We get better as the game goes along,” Duffy said.
Just ask Cranford for the truth of that statement.