There were plenty of standouts for Phillipsburg High School’s football team in its dominating 23-6 victory over visiting Union City in the NJSIAA North 2 Group 5 sectional quarterfinals at Maloney Stadium.
But if there was a game MVP awarded Friday night, Stateliners senior Mulik Warren would’ve been a landslide winner. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder started at center and defensive end and stood the tallest against a Soaring Eagles offensive line that boasted two Rutgers commits and a 6-8, 310-pound sophomore tackle who’s already receiving Division I offers.
“Coaches tell us to be a ‘dude’ out there and tonight Mulik was the ‘dude.’ He was amazing,” said Phillipsburg senior quarterback Jakhye McLean, who ran behind Warren for a 4-yard touchdown on fourth down to boost the Stateliners’ lead to 16-0 late in the first quarter.
Phillipsburg’s defense produced eight points, and Warren had a hand in all of them. He registered the game’s only sack when he tackled quarterback Chris Howell in the end zone for a safety midway through the first quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Howell tried to throw wide on a screen pass in the shadow of his end zone. Warren tipped the ball into the air and into the hands of teammate Caleb Rivera, who returned it 6 yards for an insurance touchdown that propelled third-seeded Phillipsburg into the semifinals next Friday at No. 2 Clifton, a 23-14 winner over No. 7 Hackensack.
“Mulik is our spark on defense, an emotional leader,” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said. “He plays our anchor (end), lining up against their tight end. He tipped that ball to Caleb. They did a great job sniffing out that throwback screen.”
Warren was well aware who the Stateliners were going up against in the trenches. At center, Warren often was looking across the line at defensive tackles Prinz Guitian (6-2, 280) and JaSire Peterson, a 6-4, 280-pound junior who’s committed to Rutgers, and blitzing middle linebacker Dennis Garcia (6-foot, 230).
“Oh, I knew about them, and this was my opportunity to show them what I’m all about,” said Warren with a big smile.
The Soaring Eagles were trying to dig out from a third-and-19 from their 8 when Warren registered his game-changing sack.
“I was running a little stunt where I cut inside and my tackle loops around to the outside where I was,” Warren said. “I got inside shoulder on their (right) tackle (Rutgers commit 6-7, 290-pound Nelson Monegro) and blew through to the quarterback.”
Five minutes later, Warren was escorting McLean into the end zone for the 4-yard touchdown on fourth down, when they both realized they could exploit Union City’s defensive alignment.
“I saw the middle was open, and I audibled to it,” McLean said.
“They were switching up their fronts all game, but on that play we both made the same pre-snap read,” Warren said. “We both saw it and knew it would work.”
The Stateliners appeared to be on their way to a rout over the sixth-seeded Soaring Eagles when tailback Xavier Moore bolted 40 yards up the middle for a touchdown on their first play from scrimmage – after penalties negated the first two snaps.
But an uneasy feeling permeated the P’burg faithful after Union City closed the gap to 16-6 on Damon Pallotto’s 29-yard touchdown run on fourth down with 7:25 left in the second quarter. Moreover, the Stateliners failed to score on their next three possessions after driving deep into Union City territory. They were even stuffed for no gain inside the UC 1 on third and fourth downs early in the fourth quarter.
Phillipsburg’s defense remained disciplined against the Soaring Eagles’ Wing-T misdirection attack, including the play that ended the visitors’ upset hopes.
Howell took the snap at his 13-yard line, rolled to his right, stopped and the left-hander threw back toward his receiver behind the line of scrimmage. However, Warren reached up and tipped the pass.
“I was right there, and I was trying to tip it up perfectly to myself, but it went over to (Rivera),” Warren said. “I thought I had a touchdown.”
“I saw the ball fly up and I did the same thing we are taught to do in practice when that happens,” said Rivera, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore who raced from his nose guard position toward the receiver, caught the ball and didn’t have to use any of his running back skills to stroll the 6 yards into the end zone.
Rivera’s interception was the only ball caught by a Stateliner on Friday night. McLean was 0-for-4 passing but just missed connecting with wide receiver Buster Penrose for big gains on three of the attempts.
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For Duffy, his team’s tenacious defense that held the Soaring Eagles to 113 yards rushing and his offense that produced 205 yards rushing were the telling factors.
“Tonight, two teams were playing with similar identities; they like to run the ball (212 yards per game) and we want to run the ball,” Duffy said. “The team that could stay on schedule running the ball, getting four or more yards consistently each time, probably was going to win.”
And that proved to be Phillipsburg’s ticket into the semifinals and a trip to Clifton.
Corky Blake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.