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Phillipsburg football’s defense dominates in big win over Franklin

The Phillipsburg football team failed to force a turnover in its first two games of 2021.

Over the last two weeks, the Stateliners seem determined to show that they can get takeaways at will.

Phillipsburg (2-2) forced six turnovers during a 44-0 win over Franklin in a Big Central Conference Division 5B contest at Maloney Stadium on Friday night.

The Stateliners defense scored the game’s opening points when Franklin went three-and-out on its first possession. Attempting to punt from the Warriors 14, Franklin junior punter Fher Lujan saw the snap go well over his head and was forced to scoop up the ball in his own end zone. He was tackled by Phillipsburg senior Tim Pherson for a safety.

On the second play of the Stateliners’ ensuing possession, senior running back Rai-Quan Dixon broke free on a run over the right tackle and went for a 51-yard gain down the home sideline. Two plays later, Dixon found the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown run.

“I know we have a strong backfield. We just need to show people that. I knew if I came in, ground and pound, they wouldn’t be able to stop me,” Dixon said.

Dixon, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds, led Phillipsburg’s ground game against Franklin with 98 yards on eight carries.

“I only became a running back around eighth grade, but I always knew I could run. Eighth grade, I got the chance and ever since then, they’ve just been believing in me and I’ve believed in myself ... I used to play on the line. It’s nice to be scoring touchdowns,” Dixon said with a laugh.

At the start of the second quarter, Dixon was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the Warriors 1. Franklin ran the ball two straight plays before junior quarterback Samuele Mattia dropped back to pass on third down.

Phillipsburg sophomore Gifton Friday-Johnson got into the backfield almost instantly and strip-sacked Mattia. Friday-Johnson tracked the ball down in the end zone and recovered the fumble for a touchdown.

“You’ve got to ride the momentum. We’ve got takeaway momentum here now. Momentum is a powerful thing -- it’s a real thing -- and we’re riding that right now,” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said. “I think the kids are in that mentality, so we just have to keep that going.”

Senior running back Xavier Moore scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to give Phillipsburg a 23-0 lead at halftime.

Franklin senior Moshood Babaloa fumbled the kickoff return to start the second half and Phillipsburg senior Stephen Gural recovered. The Stateliners needed just one play to extend their lead as senior quarterback Tristen Canzano lofted a 22-yard touchdown pass to fellow senior Buster Penrose.

Canzano, who started for the first time in three weeks after suffering an injury in the Stateliners’ season-opening loss to Saint Joseph of Montvale, finished with 2 completions on 11 attempts and scored on a quarterback keeper later on in the third quarter.

“Little bit of rust, but that was expected. What I did see was leadership and for him to be able to come out in the second half, although he did struggle, he did throw a very nice ball to Buster,” Duffy said. “He’s going to be better because he’s going to work his tail off, but I saw the leadership that he has.”

Franklin’s next two possessions ended with an interception by Moore and a blocked punt by sophomore Cameron Bohal. Senior Roddrick Friday-Johnson registered a forced fumble and an interception while senior Nolan Chiulli led Phillipsburg with seven tackles and had a fumble recovery.

The Stateliners, who forced five turnovers last week in a 27-0 win over Hunterdon Central, also stifled Franklin running back Quasim Ashford for much of the game.

“The big three that we needed to do to be successful was stopping (Ashford), which we did a good job of, winning special teams and blocking a kick, which we were able to do and we were able to get a takeaway on a kickoff, and then beat man coverage,” Duffy said. “Special teams were good; defense was very good; and, obviously, offense was our Achilles’ heel tonight.”

The Stateliners held Ashford, who came into the contest averaging more than 8 yards per carry, to 39 yards on 13 carries and stopped the junior for a loss five times.

“Coach Duffy really emphasized stopping the run this week and we were focused on that at practice. We did a good job tackling (Ashford),” junior defensive end Hunter Cleaver said. “Then the turnovers helped us keep them off the field.”

After playing its last two games on the road, Phillipsburg claimed its first home victory of the season and will now prepare to host Bridgewater on Oct 1.

“You always remember every time you play at Maloney. It’s one of the best atmospheres to play football in and it’s a great experience for anyone who gets to play here,” Cleaver said.

Desmond Boyle may be reached at dboyle@lehighvalleylive.com.

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