Phillipsburg’s defense has all the answers to stop Sayreville, earn season-opening win
Sayreville posed a complicated set of problems to the Phillipsburg High School football team in their Week 1 showdown.
The Bombers used a myriad of formations, blocking schemes and trick plays to try and get their playmakers, primarily junior Zaimer Wright, the ball in open space.
No matter what Sayreville threw at the Stateliners, Phillipsburg’s defense answered the call during a dominant second-half performance to deliver a 14-7 victory in a Big Central Conference cross-divisional game at Memorial Stadium Friday night.
“Keep it simple defensively, you have to. Making sure that you line up to all the formations they are going to give you. They’re going to give you some tackles over, and they’re going to really make you prepare,” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said. “Really, I know it sounds simplistic, but lining up. Lining up and making sure you have every gap accounted for is the first step and then after that it’s just running to the football.”
In the first half, the Bombers seemed determined to hand the ball off to Wright, who rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore, outside the tackles. Apart from a 77-yard sprint in the second quarter that tied the game at 7-7, the Stateliners didn’t let Wright get to the perimeter untouched.
“We were effective when they tried to do sweeps. We just broke through that line, and they just weren’t fast enough for some of these kids that we have on the line. That ruined it for them,” junior defensive lineman John Wargo said.
In the second half, Sayreville repeatedly deployed the wildcat formation with Wright taking snaps directly out of the shotgun. When those plays didn’t gain traction, the Bombers tried to get tricky.
One play after the Bombers recovered a fumble by Phillipsburg senior Xavier Moore at the Stateliners’ 40, Sayreville senior quarterback Michael Colonnello threw a pass to fellow senior Caidan Holmes behind the line of scrimmage. Holmes then looked down field and lofted a deep pass to Devlin Mills, another senior, down the away sideline.
Phillipsburg junior Kevin Burgess caught up to Mills, however, and stripped the ball out before diving on it in the end zone for a touchback.
“Just a great job running to the football, and that’s just effort and attitude,” Duffy said. “That’s all it is. You preach it in the summer camp, and you hope that it translates into the game and tonight it did.”
The Stateliners turned the ball over on downs near midfield on their next possession, and Colonnello took a quarterback keeper for 13 yards to give Sayreville a first down at the Phillipsburg 34.
Three plays later on third-and-10, Colonnello handed the ball off to Wright, who pitched the ball to backup quarterback Nick Nunez. The sophomore threw across his body, but was hit by a Phillipsburg pass rusher as he threw and Wargo intercepted the pass.
The junior then shifted to his right and, with a speed few defensive linemen possess, sprinted past several Bombers as he ran 67 yards for a pick-6.
“As much as it was a touchdown for me, that was my team. That wouldn’t have happened without my teammates,” Wargo said. “(Nunez) threw it really wobbly after he got hit, and I was just there. I knew that was my opportunity to take that ball and get down into the end zone, get the pick-6. In my eyes, I just saw green.”
“It was so quick, and it just happened so fast. I just saw the ball go up. I don’t know, but hopefully I see in film and I’m going to give that kid a hug,” Wargo added about his teammate’s pressure on Nunez.
Junior Luke Brogan, who transferred to Phillipsburg from Delaware Valley, hit his second PAT of the night to give the Stateliners a 14-7 lead with 1:32 left in the third quarter.
After Wargo’s interception, the Stateliners getting two stops on fourth down in the fourth quarter seemed almost routine. With 9:29 remaining, Moore broke up a pass intended for Holmes in the end zone on fourth-and-11.
“Whenever it’s fourth-and-long, you know you have a shot coming,” Moore said. “I met (Holmes) at a camp actually, so I know he was a good receiver. I knew I was going to be on him one-on-one. He had a fade route, broke it out behind me. So, I just flipped my hips, located the ball -- just played the ball.”
Moore had a memorable first carry to start his senior year, breaking a tackle before bursting free on a 74-yard touchdown.
“Obviously my line, they’ve been working all summer. We’ve been running the same plays all summer, so the repetition, I saw it and it clicks every single time,” Moore said.
Moore, who shared touches out of the backfield with Rai-Quan Dixon in 2021, finished with 162 yards on 18 carries. Wargo, junior fullback Caleb Rivera and sophomore quarterback Jett Genovese combined for 123 yards on 19 rushing attempts.
“I was taking more reps, but I got an outstanding group of backs behind me. John Wargo, pounding the rock, biggest kid in the league, nobody’s stopping him. We got (Rivera), nobody’s stopping him. It’s not just about me,” Moore said.
The Stateliners will stay on the road next week when they travel to Ridge (1-0), before a series of tough tests at home.
“Ridge is going to be tough; North Hunterdon is going to be tough; Hillsborough is going to be tough; Union is going to be tough. This helps us achieve our ultimate goal; we all know what that is,” Duffy said. “We’ve got to play the hammers every single week and challenge ourselves. Being in dogfights is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing.”
Desmond Boyle may be reached at email@example.com.