Not since The Friends of Distinction released their hit cover of “Grazing in the Grass” has a group of people said the word dig more than the Phillipsburg high school football team.
In the Stateliners’ Big Central Conference Division 5B game against Ridge on Friday night, they dug their way out of adversity several times and gave their fans a good thing to see with a 20-13 road victory.
Despite trailing 14-7 throughout most of the second half, the Red Devils looked set to tie the game when senior quarterback Mike Olivo found junior Patrick McCaffrey on a 33-yard touchdown pass with 1:20 left to play.
Ridge (4-2) elected to go for the two-point conversion, first breaking the huddle in a spread formation before Phillipsburg took its first timeout of the second half.
The Red Devils then lined up with just three down linemen and several receivers to both sides of Olivo, prompting the Stateliners to take another timeout.
“They came out in a whacky muddle-huddle. Thank god we had some timeouts to burn, I think they did that on purpose to try to get us flustered. Fortunately, our guys were able to lineup in a conventional formation at the end there and we practice our goal line every single day for those situations,” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said.
After Phillipsburg’s second straight timeout, Olivo lined up in the shot gun and faked a handoff before rolling to his right and firing a low pass towards McCaffrey that fell incomplete.
“We were saying, ‘This is what P’burg football is all about.’ Be gritty at the goal line. We have to stop them and that’s what we did,” Phillipsburg senior Tristen Canzano said.
McCaffrey, who made five catches for 88 yards, managed to keep his feet in bounds but the ball appeared to hit the ground as he tried to pull in the catch.
“Little chess match there at the end with the timeouts. Felt like our guys deserved to go for the win there, just didn’t get called our way,” Ridge coach Andy West said. “We talk about of those types of situations so we’re prepared, in the event that that that situation comes up, we aren’t thinking about it on the fly. We had made up our mind that if we were down to the wire like that in a close game and we could go for the win, we were going to do it.”
Ridge attempted an onside kick that Phillipsburg junior Jayson Garcia recovered. The Red Devils did get the ball back with three seconds left still trailing by a point and tried a hook and ladder. After a Ridge receiver attempted to pitch the ball backwards to keep the final play alive, Phillipsburg sophomore Cameron Bohal scooped the ball up and took it 20 yards the other way for a touchdown.
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The Stateliners, who were coming off a 17-7 loss to Bridgewater-Raritan and saw their game against Somerville cancelled due to COIVD-19 issues amongst the Pioneers last week, got off to a strong start and jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
“I’m really proud of our guys. We had the loss and then we, obviously, had the COVID situation with Somerville and our guys were eager to play,” Duffy said. “We made some adjustments after that Bridgewater game and we really needed to play a football game. Really proud of the way our guys responded to some adversity tonight.”
Senior quarterback Jakhye McLean, making his first start under center in four weeks, put Phillipsburg on the board with his first pass of the night. McLean rolled out to his right on a play action pass and found Tim Pherson all alone in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass.
“The first touchdown, we had an out route. I rolled that way and saw the corner come down and threw it to (Pherson),” McLean said. “They’re a run team so they are looking for the run. We faked with the run and hit them with the pass.”
The Red Devils went three-and-out on their ensuing possession and Phillipsburg extended their lead three plays later when McLean broke free on a 40-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the first quarter.
“I saw they all came down right in the middle, so I just stopped and saw a wide-open seam. I cut and just went up field,” McLean said.
Ridge drove past midfield on its next drive but Canzano came up with an interception when Olivo scrambled and lofted a high pass along the home sideline.
Canzano, who started the last two games at quarterback for Phillipsburg, also intercepted Olivo in the fourth quarter.
“Not going to lie, at first I was like, ‘What’s the point of even being here.’ I was a little down on myself,” Canzano said of being moved to backup QB. “I just had to snap into a new mindset, flip the switch and play defense for my team because I don’t want to let my boys down.”
Olivo cut the Stateliner’s lead to 14-7 with a 12-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
In the second half, Phillipsburg controlled the time of possession thanks to a strong performance from senior running back Rai-Quan Dixon, who took 22 carries for 96 yards.
The Stateliners also refused to give up the big play on defense. Ridge had just one play that went for more than 20 yards, apart from McCaffrey’s touchdown, in the second half.
Phillipsburg (3-3) is set to host Capital Preparatory Harbor (Connecticut) next week.
“I just told the guys, ‘It’s a second season now.’ It’s a second season now and this could be the first game of the second season for us. The first half of the season didn’t go as we planned, so let’s restart here, refocus, and have a better second season,” Duffy said.
Desmond Boyle may be reached at email@example.com.