For the first time in 14 years, the Phillipsburg football team headed into its third game of the season 0-2.
The Stateliners responded to that adversity with a dominant performance.
Philipsburg defeated Hunterdon Central 27-0 on the road in a Big Central Conference Division 5B game on Friday night.
It was the Stateliners’ first shutout of the Red Devils in program history and ninth straight win over their divisional foe.
Based on his team’s response at practice to last week’s overtime defeat to Hillsborough, Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy knew a big performance was in the cards.
“Just a sense of urgency. It all starts Monday through Thursday. I told these guys, ‘The game was won Monday through Thursday, it wasn’t won tonight.’ In typical Phillipsburg fashion, I knew we’d respond after the difficult loss last week,” the sixth-year coach said. “I could see it in their eyes; I could see it in their body language; I could see it in the way they practiced; I could see it in the way they came together.”
Behind stellar performances out of the backfield from junior Xavier Moore and senior Rai-Quan Dixon, Phillipsburg used its rushing attack to control the game. The Stateliners racked up 240 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
“We came back harder than we ever did. We fought with all we had today. We just wanted to put up a win for the people of this community, they’re always supporting so we had to deliver for them,” Moore said. “It’s amazing; it’s like a huge weight off your shoulders.”
Moore opened the scoring on Phillipsburg’s first possession by breaking free on a 26-yard touchdown run over the right tackle.
Both teams went three-and-out before Hunterdon Central made its lone trip to the red zone. A pass interference penalty on Phillipsburg pushed the Red Devils to the Stateliners 25 and, three plays later, Hunterdon Central faced fourth-and-1 from the 16.
Senior quarterback Frank Lentine threw toward the middle of the end zone but his pass to fellow senior Owen Bill fell incomplete.
Dixon then took three carries for 20, 5 and 6 yards before senior quarterback Jakhye McLean scrambled for a 14-yard gain on third-and-long. On the next play, Moore took a toss to the left and went into the end zone untouched on a 40-yard touchdown that gave Phillipsburg a 14-0 lead with 4:30 left in the first half.
“It just all opened up. I had one guy to beat on the outside and I knew he wasn’t going to get me so I broke it as fast as I could and got into the end zone,” Moore said. “That toss, it was something we were missing the last two games. It was something we were missing, so Coach (Ian) Decker got into the film room and started drawing up plays for me and all the other guys to get outside, use our speed and get to the end zone.”
Moore gained 100 yards on 12 carries. Dixon took 10 carries for 103 yards and capped the victory off with a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Caleb Rivera chipped in 24 yards on seven runs.
“Rai did an outstanding job just running the football so hard. It was really nice to see,” Duffy said. “If we can spell (Moore) with some other guys, Caleb was back there, too, it obviously makes us a better football team with (Moore) doing double duty at corner.”
After Moore’s second touchdown, Hunterdon Central tried to cut Phillipsburg’s lead before halftime and drove close to midfield. On third-and-10 from the Red Devils 43, sophomore Kevin Burgess came up with the first turnover for the Stateliners when he intercepted Lentine’s pass over the middle and took it 61 yards the other way for a touchdown.
“The game plan coming in was to watch out for the passing; they’re a really good passing team. I think we did a good job of that today. When they ran, we locked it down,” Burgess said.
Phillipsburg held Lentine to 12 completions on 28 pass attempts. Duffy attributed the Stateliners’ ability to keep the senior contained in the pocket to the performances of Rivera and Hunter Cleaver at defensive end.
“Just wanted to keep everything in front of us, make them earn it. Our guys up front did a great job. Our new guys inside like Rivera and Cleaver just did an outstanding job for us all night. Just a really gutsy effort,” Duffy said.
Moore and sophomore Patrick Day had second-half interceptions for the Stateliners. With about 7 minutes left in the game, Moore stripped Bill of the ball and Burgess recovered the fumble.
“At first, I was really nervous about starting,” Burgess said. “We came into practice and, at first, I was at corner, then they moved me to safety and said they wanted me to get some playing time there. I started playing there, they taught me the plays and it just became my home.”
Six plays later, Dixon scored the game’s final points with 2:21 left.
Phillipsburg (1-2) is set to host Franklin on Friday night.
Desmond Boyle may be reached at email@example.com.