Phillipsburg faces two major challenges when Ridge comes to Maloney Stadium Friday night (7) for a major Mid-State 38 Delaware Division football showdown.
And Isaiah Craighead will be right there in the middle of them.
The Stateliner senior outside linebacker and h-back’s ability to play hard, smart and physical football will be key as Phillipsburg (3-0, 2-0 division), ranked No. 4 in the region by lehighvalleylive, tries to extend its 13-game divisional win streak and take a major step towards a division title against the Red Devils (2-0, 2-0).
On offense, Craigshead’s bruising blocking and the occasional rugged carry (he had two carries for 17 yards in last week’s 37-14 thumping of Hunterdon Central) will be central to the Stateliners’ offensive mission, which Craighead summed up simply.
“We want to come in, grind, and be physical and run the ball down their throat,” he said.Phillipsburg did just that against Central with 270 rushing yards on 48 carries, and indeed several veteran P’burg fans thought the Stateliner’s physical performance against Hunterdon Central was the best they’d ever seen against their old friends from Flemington.
“We said the most physical team would win the game and we were the most physical,” Stateliner head coach Frank Duffy said. “We won the battle on both sides of the ball.”
It may be a bigger challenge to run over Ridge. The Red Devils own solid wins over Central (29-13) and Bridgewater-Raritan (31-14) and are on a mission to stop the run.
“They’ll load the box with eight or nine guys,” Duffy said. “They are very aggressive. They’ll use lots of nose tackles and five-man fronts. They want to stop the run first.”
As much of a challenge as Ridge’s defense will be for the Stateliners, their offense may be a bigger one.
The Red Devils run the Wing-T offense, which uses multiple backs, considerable misdirection and counter action, and can, like the triple option, result in big plays if just one piece is out of place defensively.
“We can’t mess up,” Craighead said. “If one person doesn’t do their job, we’ll pay for our mistakes.”
One of the issues with the Wing-T is its unfamiliarity to many players and coaches. Duffy noted that the offense is still popular at smaller schools, such as Lenape Valley under WIng-T wizard Don Smolyn.
“A lot of Group 1 and 2 schools still run it, but you hardly ever see it at Group 4 or 5 (Ridge is 5) schools,” Duffy said. “It’s still effective especially if you have really good athletes to run it like Ridge does.”
Fortunately for Phillipsburg, Duffy’s college coach, Rocky Rees, ran the Wing-T at Shippensburg, and he spent a year under then-North Warren coach Matt Parzero (now at Newton), another Wing-T acolyte, so he knows the offense pretty well.
“We have to keep our eye discipline and each player has to look at his keys, not somebody’s else,” Duffy said. “We start looking elsewhere, we get in serious trouble and they’ll rip off big runs.
The Stateliner veterans saw the offense with Ridge last season and held the Red Devils to one touchdown in a 21-7 win.
“We have practiced against the Wing-T really well,m and we are ready,” Craighead said. “We have to stay home and our keys. As an outside linebacker I have to keep my outside leverage and I can’t let anyone come back on top of me. We have to be very disciplined. I have to crash down on the outside and set a hard edge.”
Craighead, with inside ‘backers Tommy and Bobby Coury and fellow outside linebacker “Chaz” Sutton, will be put in key spots, especially against counter motion and the Wing-T’s emphasis on toss plays.
“I feel good about our linebackers,” he said “I have been playing alongside them every play since freshman year.”
Craighead said the defense was relatively pleased with its performance so far -- in three games the Stateliners have allowed 21 points.
“But there’s always something we can study and improve on,” Craighead said. “We have been practicing stripping the ball on tackles and catching the ball in coverage so we can create more turnovers.”
The ultimate solution for P’burg’s defense against the Wing-T may be a familiar one.
“We have to be even more physical,” Craighead said. “With our physicality, we don’t get tired, we keep playing and punching (the other team) in the mouth on every play. We can tell when our being physical is working. The other team starts walking, hands on their hips, yelling at each other. That’s how you know. That’s what Central did.”
Even if Ridge hits a home run or two, Phillipsburg is set to respond well.
“We made some mistakes against Central, but I liked the way we bounced back,” said Duffy, noting one sequence where the Red Devils stopped P’burg at the goal line but Craighead came up with a safety on the next play. “I liked the way we responded.”
It helped that Phillipsburg was playing in front of what Duffy and other Phillipsburg officials said might have been the biggest crowd since the 1997 renovation of Maloney Stadium. There’s no reason to think Friday will be much different and the players love it/
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Craighead said. “Coming on that field and wanting to play hard because you know you have all that support.”
Even coming off such an impressive win, though, Craighead said the Stateliners can’t take anything for granted.
“We can’t get cocky,” he said. “We have to got to stay focused and can’t think of anything but the next game and go out and be physical.”
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.