Phillipsburg football coach Frank Duffy’s faith in his team paid off in a big way on Thanksgiving.
Duffy, who started his coaching tenure 0-6 against rival Easton and went 0-4 against the Red Rovers when he played for the Stateliners from 1998-2001, left his offense on the field on fourth down six times and Phillipsburg scored touchdowns on four of those attempts.
In the 115th edition of the rivalry Thursday afternoon, the Stateliners defeated Easton 35-14 to help Duffy win the game he’s always considered to be the most important of the year for the first time.
“We’re going to coach to win. That’s it, we’re coaching to win. The aggressive style that we had, and I knew our kids would feed off that energy, and I had confidence in my kids. I knew that’s what they wanted and that’s what I wanted to give them,” Duffy said.
Phillipsburg left Lafayette College’s Fisher Stadium victorious for the first time since 2014 and snapped the Rovers’ six-game win streak, the longest in the history of the storied rivalry.
“It’s indescribable. What a great feeling this is. This is a long time coming for the town of Phillipsburg and I’m so happy for these fans and this community. We need this, we needed this game,” Duffy said.
One year removed from a painful 7-3 defeat to Easton, when the Rovers scored the game’s only touchdown with less than a minute remaining, the Stateliners chanted “DUF-FY” as he hoisted the Forks of the Delaware trophy.
“That was beautiful. It means a lot. Just hearing all the ridicule and all the hate Coach Duffy gets, it feels good to pull this one out for him and for him to be able to go home happy on Thanksgiving,” senior running back Xavier Moore said.
“So much better. I actually get to enjoy Thanksgiving this year, I’ll actually want to be around people. I’m just proud, I’m sad it’s over, senior year,” senior lineman Qian Walters said.
Phillipsburg (11-1) led 14-7 at halftime and received the opening kickoff of the second half, which sophomore Matthew Scerbo Jr. returned to the Liners’ 37.
Phillipsburg moved into the red zone in just two plays thanks to an 18-yard carry by Moore and a 27-yard scramble by sophomore quarterback Jett Genovese. A Genovese sneak on third-and-goal would have set the Stateliners up one yard from the goal line, but a personal foul penalty pushed their fourth-and-goal opportunity back to the Easton 16.
With starting kicker Luke Brogan limited by injury, Phillipsburg sent its offense out after a timeout. Genovese took the snap and almost immediately lofted a pass to the right that Scerbo Jr. out-jumped Easton senior JV Johnson to come down with in the end zone.
“They put their confidence in me so I just had to show out and get the touchdown for my team. When they put that trust in me, I’m going to go get it,” Scerbo Jr. said.
That touchdown extended the Stateliners’ lead to 20-7 with 8:06 left in the third quarter.
“Perfect,” Scerbo Jr. added of Genovese’s pass to him. “We practice that every day at practice, so we know it’s coming. We know how to do it.”
“Matt’s just a hell of a player, what an unbelievable talent that kid is. To get those kids for two more years is pretty amazing,” Duffy said.
The Rovers (3-8) went three-and-out before Phillipsburg scored another touchdown on fourth down on its next possession. The Stateliners took over at their own 41 and gained 19 yards on seven straight run plays before they faced fourth-and-5 from the Rovers’ 40.
Genovese faked a handoff before rolling to his right and finding Rivera, who snuck out of the backfield uncovered, and the junior turned up field and sprinted down the away sideline for a 40-yard TD.
“We were preaching all week that (Easton) was going to set an edge and you may not be able to outrun them. First thing (Rivera) said when he came over to the sideline, ‘I outran that guy.’ That’s a good play by Caleb. Our playmakers made a lot of plays today,” Genovese said.
Phillipsburg extended its lead to 28-7 with 2:08 left in the third on a two-point conversion as Genovese found Moore wide open on a throwback pass.
The Rovers moved the chains once on their next possession before turning the ball over on downs at their own 46. After moving the ball four yards in three plays, the Stateliners lined up to punt for the second time in the contest.
It was Rivera, out of the upback position, who took the snap instead and, after spinning out of one would-be tackle, found room to run down the away sideline for the second time in the second half on a 42-yard touchdown.
“It was mainly coaching. He saw we had an opening and took a shot,” Rivera said.
Junior Colin Huey’s extra point gave Phillipsburg a 35-7 lead with 7:34 left to play.
Rivera finished with 72 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, including a five-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the first quarter.
Moore, who was named the game’s offensive MVP, rushed for 130 yards on 17 carries. Most of those yards came on a 73-yard run in the first quarter to set up Rivera’s first score.
“It’s what I always dreamed like it would feel like. I’m a little choked up,” Moore said.
Three of Genovese’s four completions went for touchdowns, including a 21-yard toss to junior Kevin Burgess on fourth-and-10 on the Stateliners’ opening possession.
“Coach Duffy prides us in being aggressive and being an aggressive team,” Genovese said. “That’s just how we’ve been all year. We probably go for it 95 percent of the time inside the 20-yard line.”
Easton senior Aidan Hutchison scored both of the Rovers’ touchdowns on a four-yard carry in the second quarter and a five-yard carry with 3:41 left in the fourth quarter. Hutchison finished with 190 yards on 27 carries.
Junior Cameron Bohal recorded a game-high 11 tackles and was named defensive MVP. Walters was recognized as the game’s top lineman.
“This is just something I dreamed of as a kid growing up in Phillipsburg, it finally came true. I knew we had the guys to do it, I knew we had the coaching staff to do it ever since the January weight rooms,” Walters said.
Phillipsburg out-gained the Rovers by 101 yards on the ground, 271-170.
“I told the guys before this, ‘You’re going to mess up, it happens,’… I told them to stay physical no matter what. Even if you miss a block, hit somebody. Hit any and everything at a 100 miles per hour that’s not wearing our jersey,” Walters said.
“We’re just playing the sport because we love it, it’s why we play. We’re just a physical team,” Rivera added.
After the Stateliners’ chaotic postgame celebration on the field, it took Duffy a few minutes to gather his team together. Once he did, the seventh-year coach showed his appreciation for the unit that ended the rivalry-win drought in a community that prioritizes few things above football.
“It’s finally yours. I’ve dreamed of this moment for years. I’ve got some of the toughest, baddest dudes on the planet, on this football team right here. You guys are an unbelievable group, unbelievable group. I love you guys,” Duffy said to his team. “This community, we needed this. P’burg needed this and guess what? You guys took it home. They can never, ever take this away from you. 2022 belongs to us.”
“I’m really proud of this and this one’s for coach Duffy,” Genovese said.
Desmond Boyle may be reached at email@example.com.