All night Toms River East had been looking for a key defensive play to stop Howell’s high-powered offense.
When the Raiders found themselves trailing 41-34 with two minutes to go and the Rebels marching into their territory, they finally got one from junior defensive back Jeff Wood.
Wood picked off a pass from Rebels quarterback Connor McGlynn and returned it deep into Howell territory to set up a game-tying touchdown and then later ran in a game-winning touchdown in overtime to seal the Raiders’ first win of the year, 47-41, in overtime Friday on the road.
“We started to play defense at the right time,” Toms River East coach Charlie Diskin said. “We came with a blitz because we thought they were going to try to get the first down. The kid tipped it up. (Wood) just has a nose for the ball and just makes plays. He’s a heck of a player.”
“(The first win of the season) felt so good,” Wood said. “The team just kept it up the whole time and played as hard as we could.”
On the play following the Wood interception, senior running back Matt Gudzak ran for a 20-yard touchdown that tied the score at 41.
In overtime, Wood took a handoff 21 yards to the right side for a touchdown to give the Raiders a 47-41 lead. On the Rebels’ following possession, the Raiders forced McGlynn into three straight incompletions. On 4th-and-19, McGlynn unleashed a last-hope pass towards wide receiver Joey Schultz deep in the end zone, but senior defensive back Zach Rosengrant picked it off just in front of the end zone to seal the win.
Gudzak finished with a game-high 239 yards on 19 carries, including touchdown runs of 58, 41, 61 and 20 yards.
“It was different this week,” said Gudzak. “We had great practices coming into this game, studying hard. We had up-tempo practices. We were ready to go get win No. 1. We were tired of losing. It’s not fun to lose. We needed to get that win and then keep rolling.”
All game, Gudzak battled sloppy field conditions due to heavy rain in the first half.
“Especially in the first half, it was hard to cut and keep my balance,” he said. “I remember on one of the touchdowns, I wanted to cut but I slipped. It was difficult, but we played through it.”
The sloppy conditions stalled the Howell offense early on. The Rebels coughed up two fumbles to the Raiders in the first quarter and receivers dropped five passes from McGlynn throughout the game.
McGlynn completed 13 of 37 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns. Schultz hauled in six, including two touchdowns passes for 136 yards. Senior running back Nate Litowsky powered his way to 192 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24 carries but left the game during overtime due to a leg cramp.
Both teams combined for 32 points in the third quarter. East running back Dominick Spalletta broke free for a 70-yard touchdown to give the Raiders their first lead, and then later in the quarter East quarterback Paul Aliseo completed a 59-yard play-action touchdown pass to re-take the lead.
McGlynn and Schutlz connected for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 41-34 lead, but the Wood interception minutes later would spark the Raiders’ comeback.