PHILLIPSBURG — Phillipsburg could have been completely derailed when star running back Joe Green went out with an injury on Friday on the first drive against North Hunterdon, and one of the most anticipated games of the season could have lost some of its luster.
But Green's absence simply set the stage for other Stateliners to provide heroics.
Jack Stagaard connected with Nasir Ball for a pair of long touchdowns, Abdul Salahuddin stepped up in the running game, and Phillipsburg, No. 16 in the NJ.com Top 20, got a dominant defensive showing in a 20-7 victory over previously undefeated North Hunterdon at Maloney Stadium.
The victory wasn't just Phillipsburg's seventh straight to start the season, but also gave the Stateliners the inside track to be the top seed in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4.
"I felt like we just made a statement," Staggard said. "We know how we can play. The last few weeks we've been a little edgy. So we proved ourselves, that we can play this way this week."
The Phillipsburg rushing attack gashed North Hunterdon throughout the first drive, but the ground game took a hit when star back Green went out with an arm injury on the first drive. Salahuddin stepped right in and kept it rolling and converted one fourth down on the ground, but was stopped on 4th-and-2 from the 4-yard line. This could have given North Hunterdon a major momentum swing, but the Stateliner defense made sure that wasn’t the case and forced a punt.
While the Stateliners were concerned to see Green injured (his status was still unknown after the game) — they knew what their course of action for the game was: Next man up.
"That's what I'm most proud of, we just kept on going," Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said. "No one even discussed it, no one even mentioned it."
On Stagaard’s first pass attempt of the game, he connected with Ray Poremba for a 30-yard pass over the middle that got Phillipsburg down to the goal line. Once the Stateliners were there, Salahuddin rumbled on from two yard out on the first play of the second quarter to open the scoring and put them up, 7-0.
North Hunterdon’s offense showed glimpses of potential on the next drive, working its way to midfield before penalties forced the Lions backwards and led them to punt. With Phillipsburg getting the ball near midfield, the offense started to move again before Stagaard connected with Ball on the right side. The junior wideout made one move and was gone, jetting through the North Hunterdon secondary to the end zone to double the lead at 14.
"We've been working on it, if the linebacker isn't on me we just quick pass it, Stag throws me the ball and I've got to find a way to make a defender miss and get as many yards as I can, and that happened to be a touchdown," Ball said. "I feel as though when I get out in the open, I can make a lot of people miss. Once I make that one person miss, I'm just ready to go. I'm looking at the end zone."
With no running back making a dent in the Phillipsburg defense, North Hunterdon turned to quarterback Matt Busher’s dual-threat ability. He started to pick up yardage on designed run plays and scrambles and had the offense rolling. After an unsportsmanlike conduct call got North Hunterdon into the red zone, Busher looked like he had killed the drive by throwing an interception into the end zone. But a roughing the passer call gave the Lions new life, and Busher took advantage of the opportunity with a 4-yard touchdown run on a zone read that drew the Lions to within 14-7.
After North Hunterdon punted on its first drive of the second half, Phillipsburg marched down the field and grabbed the lead when Stagaard rolled out to his right and connected with Ball once again who was uncovered in the right side of the end zone. The extra point missed, but the Stateliners found themselves up, 20-7, and back in control.
"Complete composure, absolutely," Duffy said of Stagaard. "He has matured into a fine leader. I don't know if I want to say this, but I'll say is he was a good quarterback tonight. He was a good quarterback on the field tonight, that's all I'll say. Taking away nothing from those guys, because that's a heck of a team. Coach (Jared) Mazzetta is doing a heck of a job."
Phillipsburg leads the all-time series with North Hunterdon, 18-1 with North Hunterdon's lone win coming in 1997.
"I'm taking nothing away from the hype of this game. It was really neat, because this is what high school football is all all about," Duffy said. "But honestly, this is what Phillipsburg football is all about. We're built off of big games. This is nothing new to us. This is just another day at the office."
Jeremy Schneider may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @J_Schneider. Find NJ.com on Facebook.