Forget what the halftime scoreboard showed.
Forget the lopsided total yardage numbers.
Forget the fatigue its defense had to feel after playing all but seven minutes of the first half.
The Carteret High School football team jogged right past the numbers indicating it faced a 12-point deficit and a potential shutout and headed back to the locker room feeling as if it had somehow gained control.
Indeed it had.
Top-seeded Carteret, which captured its first sectional title since 2007, used its defensive stand at the end of the first half Saturday morning as the launching pad for the decisive comeback in a 13-12 victory against sixth-seeded Weequahic in the NJSIAA Central Group II final at MetLife Stadium.
“If they score there,” Carteret coach Matt Yascko said, “it might as well be 100-0.”
It wasn’t an easy stand to get.
Under the direction of quarterback Kedar Clarke, Weequahic, which used all three of its timeouts by the early portion of the second quarter, converted a fourth-and-2 despite a fumbled snap and twice converted third-and-longs by drawing defensive pass interference penalties on deep throws.
With the clock down to 10 seconds and running, Weequahic handed off to Akrum Wadley, who earlier scored on an 84-yard punt return and a 35-yard run, up the middle. He was stuffed to keep it at 12-0.
“That goal-line play we had to smell blood,” senior Naji Johnson said. “Our coach told us in the second half to stay together as a family and know we can’t be broken. That’s what we did.”
To better contain Weequahic’s dynamic speed in the option-run offense, defensive coordinator Keith Kapinos went deep into his bag of tricks and moved Naji Johnson to noseguard to create a six-man front.
“We woke up,” senior defensive end Josue Romero said. “We’ve never been in this position before so that made us kick it up to the best we’ve ever kicked it up this whole season. We worked, we made some halftime adjustments, and came out here and we did it.”
Carteret’s faith in its defense was reaffirmed when it opened the second half with an onside kick that left Weequahic with good starting field position. Three plays later, the punter came on the field.
“Once we got that three-and-out, that’s when we took the game over,” junior defensive lineman Cory Baccarella said. “That’s when we knew the game was in the defense’s hands.”
In between the offense’s two touchdowns — both of which were scored by Naji Johnson — the defense forced a punt after surrendering midfield. Protecting a 13-12 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the unit came up clutch again — with lineman Brendel Castillo applying pressure to Clarke and cornerback Jerod Johnson knocking down his pass to force a turnover on downs.
Clarke finished with a paltry 97 yards of total offense and Wadley carried 10 times for 62 yards.
“We still had confidence in our team because we were around the ball – we just missed the tackles on (Wadley),” Jerod Johnson said. “We trusted our corners in one-on-one coverage with their wide receivers to make plays.”
Fittingly, the defense returned to the field with 58 seconds remaining. The final assignment? Prevent Weequahic from driving from the 29-yard line to field goal range with no timeouts in its pocket.
“We said, ‘It’s the last 58 seconds of our career. We can do it. We can give it our all for 58 seconds,'” Romero said. “All we have to do is stop them before the 30- or 40-yard line and it’s an accomplishment.”
Baccarella made sure the mission — winning three straight playoff games by a total of 10 points — was accomplished when he fell on a fumble with two seconds to go.
“The defense won us this championship hands down,” Naji Johnson said. “First-round of the playoffs against A.L. Johnson, the defense was on the field the last play. Second-round against Shabazz, defense on the field the last play. Championship, defense on the last play. Defense wins championships.”