This is a tale of fourth downs, full of sound and fury – six fourth downs that put Phillipsburg in control of its Thanksgiving Day football destiny.
On four of them, the Stateliners scored. On the other two, the P’burg defense came up with big plays that prevented Easton from making game-changers of plays.
Add it up and the result was a life-changer of a win for Phillipsburg, 35-14, to end years of agony against the Red Rovers, to end years of Thanksgiving dinners that tasted like wet rugs to Stateliner fans, and to end the mounting frustration of Easton’s dominance, having won every game since 2014.
“I needed that one,” said an ecstatic Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy, who had never beaten the Rovers either as a player or a coach before Thursday.
The Garnet and Gray boosters, students, fans, and friends that rocked Lafayette’s Fisher Stadium – the old barn got two workouts in five days as Lafayette’s fans partied with joy after beating Lehigh Saturday – sure needed it, too, their faces radiant with the glow that comes from a win over Easton after what seemed like a permanent loss of bragging rights.
And make no mistake about – the win came on fourth downs.
“We’re coaching to win,” Duffy said. “We’re going to be aggressive.”
There’s a reason teams get four downs in football, but they often don’t use them, opting for safety over scoring.
Not the Stateliners, who overall were 5-for-6 on fourth downs Thursday.
Phillipsburg's QB Jett Genovese passes the ball. (12) Easton and Phillipsburg football teams meet in the 115th Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24, 2022.Tim Wynkoop | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Phillipsburg’s first fourth down strike came with 6:32 left in the first quarter. Facing 4th-and-9 from the Rover 21, sophomore quarterback Jett Genovese rolled right, hit junior receiver Kevin Burgess perfectly and Burgess motored into the end zone.
After junior Caleb Rivera’s five-yard TD run that left a wake of would-be Easton tacklers sprawled behind made it 14-0 (on second down, sadly for out theme), it was the Stateliner defense’ turn to shine on fourth.
P’burg’s defenders had already smothered the Rover offense on its first drive on 4th-and-1 at the Easton 43 when the Rovers fumbled and Stateliner junior linebacker Patrick Day made sure Easton’s standout senior running back Aidan Hutchison (27 carries, 190 hard-earned yards, both Rover TDs) went nowhere after the recovery.
Easton’s third drive, powered by Hutchison’s churning legs, penetrated into the red zone before a pair of holding calls made it 4th-and-18 at the P’burg 24 with 8:38 before halftime,
Now, that doesn’t sound like a very promising moment, right? But you could almost feel the apprehension wafting from the home-side stands where the Stateliner faithful, almost benumbed by years of torture at the hands of Easton, had the jitters. This was where, they thought, some Rover would make some hellacious, totally improbable play on a reverse flea-flicker or some such ludicrous happening, and the game would swing.
Phillipsburg's Zachary Ries (45) and Hunter Cleaver (83) celebrate after winning this years game. Easton and Phillipsburg football teams meet in the 115th Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24, 2022.Tim Wynkoop | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Hunter Cleaver made sure that didn’t happen.
The P’burg senior defensive lineman rocketed into the Easton backfield and sacked sophomore quarterback Joseph Martinez for a turnover on downs.
“We knew when they went empty (backfield) that it going to be a pass because it was fourth and a mile,” Cleaver said. “I knew I could use my speed to pressure the quarterback, I saw an opening and I knew I could get him.”
The one fourth down that went badly for Phillipsburg followed Cleaver’s sack, as Easton sophomore Jasir Frutchey blocked a punt, which went out of bounds at the Stateliner 29. Six runs by guess-who later the score stood 14-7, which was what it was at the half.
Then came three straight fourth-down magic moments that sealed the win for Phillipsburg.
First possession of the second half marches to the Rover 1 where the Stateliners were flagged for a dead-ball personal foul on third-and-goal.
P’burg now faced a 4th-and-long (16 yards) deep in enemy territory just as Easton had earlier – but with a different result. Very different.
Phillipsburg's Matthew Scerbo Jr. (10) celebrates his touchdown against Easton during their Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com
Sophomore quarterback Jett Genovese lofted a fade pass to sophomore receiver Matthew Scerbo Jr. in the far back corner of the end zone – no easy play, but Scerbo made it look that way.
Touchdown for a combination that’s already familiar to P’burg fans and maybe become all too familiar for Easton fans.
“Jett and I work that play all the time in practice,” Scerbo said. “I kind of hoped it was coming to me and I was able to make a play for it.”
Genovese said. “I know if I put the ball in the right place, Matt goes up and gets it.”
He sure does.
Next drive, score 20-7 P’burg, 4th and 5 from the Rover 40. Genovese rolled right with several receivers dragging with him. He flipped a pass to junior running back Caleb Rivera, which got the first down – and a lot more.
Rivera, who has sizzling speed for a such a powerful 185-pound athlete, got loose down the sideline and was in the end zone 40 yards later; 28-7 Liners.
“I had a blocker in front of me and I ran around him and saw the field open up,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t really supposed to be a touchdown.”
Genovese, if you’re scoring at home, threw for touchdowns of 21, 16 and 40 yards, all on fourth downs.
One is a fluke. Two is a trend. Three is a stud.
“That’s Coach Duffy being aggressive,” Genovese said. “He has confidence we can execute on fourth down.”
Phillipsburg's Caleb Rivera (6) finishes off a 40-yard touchdown catch in Thursday's 35-14 defeat of Easton.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com
Duffy wasn’t done being aggressive on fourth – and why not, right? Hot hands roll hot dice, and Duffy dialed up a fake punt from the Easton 42 on the first Stateliner possession of the fourth quarter.
Rivera took the ball, sprinted to his left, made mincemeat of the Rovers who tried to stop him and accompanied by some teammates and the delighted roar from the stands, sailed into the end zone for the clinching score and his third TD on the day.
“Caleb’s just a crazy player,” Genovese said. “I have seen him do things like he did today since we played at Pohatcong. I am so proud of Caleb.”
Rivera’s smile stretched back to Pohat.
“This is an awesome feeling,” he said. “I can’t express it.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of the kids,” he said. “They really executed today.”
Especially on fourth down – fourth downs that will remembered, rejoiced in, and relived, as long as kids play football at Phillipsburg.
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.