A year ago, the Spotswood High School football team found itself in many a shootout, surrendering an average of 33 points in each of its defeats, which included three losses by a total of five points.
Quarterback C.J. O’Connor, among the Greater Middlesex Conference’s leading passers last season with 1,309 yards and 15 touchdowns, has completed just 2 of 4 passes for 79 yards this year.
The Chargers, off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009 — the last year they qualified for the postseason — have not had to rely on O’Connor’s strong and accurate arm.
Spotswood’s defense, which has been superb, forcing 10 turnovers and limiting opponents to a total of 10 points, has enabled the run-oriented Chargers to maintain good field position.
“I don’t care,” O’Connor said about his personal statistics. “I just want to win.”
The Chargers and South River (3-0) now pose the biggest challenge to three-time defending GMC Blue Division champion Dunellen (1-2), whose losses are out of conference to a vastly improved Mater Dei squad and incumbent Central Group I semifinalist Point Pleasant Beach.
O’Connor did not attempt a single pass Saturday as the Chargers rushed 48 times in a 7-3 win over the Garnet Gulls. Defensive back Chase Fee sealed the win with a late fourth-quarter interception in the red zone.
Spotswood’s success can be attributed, in large part, to a shift in defensive philosophy in which head coach Andy Cammarano has emphasized a return to basics.
“Last year we tried to be too multiple,” Cammarano explained, noting the team’s primary focus has been on run defense. “If you don’t (stop the run), you’re never going to see the passing downs, and we weren’t getting to that point. Everybody was third-and-3 on us. It forced us to throw because we were always playing from behind.”
Cammarano said the Chargers practice the same skill set every day and that he believes Spotswood could line up and fare well against opponents without scouting.
“If we see a crazy formation, we can adjust and just play our defense,” he said. “We don’t have any panic and our kids feel comfortable with what they are doing.”
Ends Neftali Aguirre and Mason White have anchored a defensive line whose interior features a rotation at tackle. White, ranked No. 2 academically in the junior class, has an acumen for the game that makes him function like a coach on the field.
The Chargers, who dressed just 31 players in a 2007 consolation game against Point Pleasant Beach, suited 56 players against the Garnet Gulls on Saturday.
Cammarano has a total of 70 players in the program, including freshmen, translating into unique depth for the state’s third smallest Group II football-playing school.
The Chargers use a five-player rotation at linebacker featuring Mike McCloskey, Austin Wyatt, Shane White, Matt Martino and Tom Hagerty (White is the only member of the quintet who plays offense).
“I don’t think any of our linebackers could match any of the (top) running backs they have to play if it’s a race, but they play together and get in position to tackle,” Cammarano said.
Senior cornerback Jon Milburn, who has a team-leading three interceptions, anchors a secondary that features returning starters Fee and Jeff Szatkowski.
Running back Doug Ryan, who rushed for 267 yards and scored a total of seven touchdowns in South River’s first two games, missed Saturday’s 48-6 victory over Keansburg with a sprained ankle.
Ryan, incredibly, endured the injury on the first offensive play from scrimmage against Metuchen the previous week. He went on to have one of the best all-around games of his career, rushing for 207 yards, returning an interception 75 yards for a score and hauling in a 27-yard touchdown pass.
Ryan had the ankle taped at halftime against the Bulldogs. Upon awaking Sunday morning, however, the ankle ballooned.
South River coach Rich Marchesi said X-rays and an MRI were negative. He said Ryan could be sidelined for as long as three weeks, or could return to practice as early as Wednesday.
In Ryan’s stead, the Rams (3-0), led by Tyron Suydam, who scored three touchdowns, rushed for 305 yards against Keansburg.
Marchesi said South River’s offensive line has been the key to the team’s successful ground game.
After forfeiting to Keyport because it was down to just 13 healthy players, Cardinal McCarrick will be back in action Friday, traveling to Metuchen for the Bulldogs’ first-ever night game.
Metuchen Athletics Director John Cathcart said Cardinal McCarrick Athletics Director Gil Pritchard called last week to inform him that the Eagles would be returning to the gridiron.
Under NJSIAA rules, any school that forfeits twice in a season is immediately deemed ineligible for the remainder of the year.
1. Edison 2-0
2. Monroe 3-0
3. Piscataway 2-1
4. Old Bridge 2-1
5. Sayreville 1-2
6. Linden 1-2
7. St. Joseph 3-0
8. South Brunswick 1-2
9. Rahway 3-0
10. South Plainfield 2-0