Head coach Dan Higgins, taking a break from studying game film, sounded weary but remained optimistic as he considered the possibilities of what a victory over Monroe this weekend could mean to his Piscataway High School football program.
The Chiefs, who have qualified for the postseason each of the past 16 years, are in danger of failing to reach the NJSIAA playoffs for the first time since 1996 and of finishing .500 for only the second time since Higgins took over the program a decade ago.
A loss to the Falcons (5-1) on Friday night could make it virtually impossible for Piscataway (2-3) to climb from its current ninth position in North 2 Group V to qualify for the eight-team bracket. The Chiefs trail Westfield by five power points for the final playoff spot in the section.
“We know if we get in the playoffs we survived the gauntlet,” said Higgins, noting the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division schedule prepared his young team for the postseason.
The Chiefs graduated 14 starters – most who played both ways – and three other lettermen from a team that appeared in three consecutive sectional finals, winning back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011 while losing a heartbreaker in the closing minute to Elizabeth last year.
Even the state’s most successful public school program, one with 15 graduates currently playing in college and six more who began the 2013 campaign with NFL teams, is not immune to the cyclical nature of scholastic competition.
With just two full-time starters returning on defense, the Chiefs are on pace to allow the most points in a season since Higgins’ father, Tom, took over the program in 1970. The 506 rushing yards Piscataway yielded in last weekend’s loss to Sayreville are believed to the most the Chiefs have ever surrendered.
Compound Piscataway’s inexperience with having to play its first five games on the road against opponents from the state’s best division, and it makes complete sense that a team that returned just 128 yards of total offense and plays freshmen at running back and quarterback would have an inauspicious beginning.
The Chiefs are losing the turnover battle (6 to 5), have been outgained 323 to 264 yards per game, are allowing 245 rushing yards per contest and uncharacteristically have just one special teams touchdown (Ladi Isijola’s 90-yard kickoff return). Piscataway has recorded just two sacks (Nano Preko and D.J. Felton) and two interceptions (Tyrell Bush and Isiah Ross).
“No excuses from us,” said Higgins, whose 55-player varsity roster lists just 14 seniors. “But you lost all this production, you lost all this firepower and you just don’t have as much swagger. You are afraid to make mistakes. Our guys are thinking the whole time.
“They feel like they are letting the coaches down and the past players. There’s a feeling of real un-satisfaction among the program, among these players. They are really good kids. I like them a lot. There’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of optimism even though our record doesn’t reflect a team that’s in a good position as far as their record and the playoffs and all that.”
Piscataway has converted all 13 of its red-zone scoring opportunities and freshman running back Elijah Barnwell (467 rushing yards) has shown tremendous promise. Freshman quarterback Danny Haus, a dual threat who was instrumental in a 17-16 upset of Old Bridge, complements Justin Strother, more of a drop-back passer who succeeded four-year starter Nadir Barnwell, now starting in the secondary at Rutgers University as a true freshman.
Despite having been outscored 81-32 in consecutive losses to defending sectional champions South Brunswick and Sayreville, Piscataway has already proved it can beat the division’s best. The Chiefs are the lone team with a victory over Old Bridge (5-1), which is currently ranked No. 1 in the Home News Tribune Top 10.
Piscataway’s last four regular-season games are at home. If the Chiefs can defeat Monroe, which lost its starting quarterback and best defensive player to injuries in last weekend’s 17-14 loss to Old Bridge, the win will likely secure a postseason berth.
With three remaining regular-season contests against schools – North Brunswick, East Brunswick and Franklin – that have a combined 1-16 record, Piscataway could certainly build some momentum heading into the postseason.
Regardless of how young Piscataway may be, the Chiefs are still the Chiefs, and few teams want to see Higgins’ team in November. So, don’t count Piscataway out just yet.
“The next opportunity is the greatest,” Higgins said. “That’s how we see it. We don’t have too many opportunities left. We’ll bounce back.”
Falcon breaks wing
Monroe head coach Chris Beagan said quarterback Stephen Karoly, who fractured his left (non-throwing) wrist on the final offensive series of Friday night’s loss to Old Bridge, will be sidelined for at least three weeks.
Paul Baclayon, the team’s defensive quarterback, is expected to be out perhaps just as long with a foot injury, which the linebacker also endured last Friday night while playing fullback early in the first quarter.
Kyle Volkmann, who split time last season with Karoly at quarterback, will get the start on Friday against Piscataway. He knows the offense well, so the Falcons won’t have to change much.
South River’s homecoming game, initially scheduled for this Saturday against Cardinal McCarrick, which has had to forfeit the remainder of its games because of attrition, has been saved.
Middlesex, which initially had a bye this upcoming weekend, graciously offered to fill the open date on the Rams’ calendar.
The teams were initially slated to meet on Nov. 9.
1. Old Bridge 5-1
2. Monroe 5-1
3. South Brunswick 4-2
4. Edison 3-2
5. Sayreville 4-2
6. Linden 3-2
7. St. Joseph 6-0
8. Piscataway 2-3
9. Colonia 4-1
10. South Plainfield 4-1