Sidelined with an ankle injury the two previous games, South River High School running back Doug Ryan made a triumphant return, rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Rams to a 22-18 victory over Dunellen on Friday night.
Ryan scored on runs of 1, 7 and 1 yards against the three-time defending Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division champions as Dunellen had its division winning streak snapped at 16 games.
The defeat was only the second for Dunellen over its last 22 division meetings and was South River’s first over the Destroyers since 2009.
South River erased an 18-8 fourth-quarter deficit, scoring on two consecutive possessions, the last with 4:34 remaining. The Rams iced the victory with an interception by Ryan, the Home News Tribune’s Player of the Week, in the closing minute.
The game’s turning point came with a clutch defensive stop on fourth-and-inches from the Dunellen 30 yard line, which set up Ryan’s 7-yard scoring jaunt, making the score 18-15. South River took possession near midfield on its ensuing drive, which Ryan capped with a 1-yard plunge.
Ryan similarly accounted for all of South River’s scoring in a 28-3 victory earlier this year over Metuchen. He injured his ankle on the first offensive series against the Bulldogs, but still managed to rush for a season-high 216 yards on 22 carries.
The next day, Ryan’s ankle ballooned, leaving him sidelined the following week against Keansburg and limiting him to two carries the next week against Shore.
“Offensively,” South River coach Rich Marchesi said, “he is really the engine that makes the rest of us go. He’s a focal point of the offense, but our fullback plays are based off him, our play action is based off him. He’s a huge part of our offense, not that he’s the one cog, but everything comes off him because the other team is going to key on him.”
Marchesi, who is as creative as any of the league’s coaches, attempted to diversify South River’s offense, employing four- and five-wideout looks. He decided a couple of weeks ago, however, to go back to the Rams’ strength, which is Ryan.
“I try to do so many things,” Marchesi said. “I cut my game plan in half. What we are now is a power I running team, a North-South team. Everything is based off Doug.”
With a return to basics South River improved to 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the division to keep pace with Spotswood, which has a tough game this weekend against vastly improved Metuchen.
South River’s Nov. 2 meeting against the Chargers (5-0 overall, 3-0 division) will likely determine the division championship.
“Coming back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter showed a lot of heart and character with this club,” Marchesi said. “It was a big win on the road.
“Hopefully, the Dunellen game gives us momentum into the second half of the schedule.”