With the South River High School football team pinned deep in its own territory midway through the first quarter, Rob Gilman slid from his defensive end position to nose tackle, where he was responsible for both gaps.
The senior, who shifted around the line of scrimmage, was left unblocked as he shot through a hole and buried quarterback Nick Lepore for a tone-setting safety that carried Metuchen to Saturday’s 9-0 season-opening victory over the defending Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division champions.
“That play just got us really pumped,” Gilman said. “It had us feeling good for the rest of the game. We knew that we could do some damage on defense. It felt really good to know that we got the ball back and we could score and just get the momentum rolling for the rest of the game.”
Following the ensuing free kick, converted wide receiver Danny Briggs, playing his first game at running back, broke off a 34-yard scoring run through the heart of South River’s defense to give Metuchen its 9-0 lead with 4:07 left in the first quarter.
Briggs, who finished with 59 yards on 17 carries, broke through the arm tackle of a linebacker before using his acceleration at the second level to breeze past defenders.
“I owe it all to them,” Briggs said of his offensive line, which features Gilman, Bucknell University commit Tommy Gorman and Division I recruit Devin Miller. “I got through the initial surge and I just kept running my feet. That’s what my coaches say. Keep running your feet. You’re like a bat out of hell out of the backfield. That’s what I tried to do and it worked out.”
With star running back Doug Ryan, who broke his leg in the preseason, standing on the sideline in crutches, the Rams struggled to move the ball on offense, gaining just 62 yards from scrimmage, 54 of which came late in the third quarter on the team’s only sustained drive.
Tyler Valovcin thwarted South River’s best chance to score, breaking up a fourth-and-5 pass at the Metuchen 15 yard line with 2:14 remaining.
The Rams pierced Metuchen territory just one other time, taking possession on their ensuing series at the Bulldogs’ 46 following a bad snap on a punt attempt.
South River otherwise endured horrible field position, starting eight drives on average at their own 17 yard line.
The Rams went three-and-out on their first eight possessions and didn’t muster a first down until Sean Darrar broke off a 15-yard run late in the third quarter. They finished with three first downs, all of which came on that sustained third-quarter drive.
Lepore, who endured four sacks, was hurried and harassed much of the day. He completed 6 of 13 passes for 25 yards and finished with 1 rushing yard on seven carries. The Rams, as a team, were limited to 28 yards on the ground. Gilman was a disruptive presence.
“He has a great get off the ball,” Metuchen coach Bob Ulmer said of Gilman. “We felt with his speed he could get in the backfield a little bit faster. That’s what has made some colleges (Albany and Monmouth) take notice with him. He’s a kid that works hard in practice and was a weight-room fanatic in the offseason. He had a fantastic game. I think that’s something that hopefully carries on for the whole season.”
Metuchen finished with 169 yards from scrimmage, 65 of which came through the air as quarterback Jake Lebovits completed 5 of 11 passes including Tyler Valovcin’s brilliant 28-yard catch and Evan Collier’s even more impressive 24-yard grab. Those receptions fueled a 58-yard march to open the second half that culminated with a blocked 30-yard field goal attempt.
South River did a fine job defensively of containing Lebovits when he rolled out, limiting him to 12 rushing yards on six carries. Lebovits’ biggest run actually came up the middle when he converted a key fourth-and-1 on a quarterback keeper from near midfield to keep alive the game’s lone scoring drive.
After Metuchen recovered a muffed punt near midfield, the Bulldogs went for a home run ball on the backside post, but Lebovits’ bomb for Collier floated into the hands of Lepore, South River’s free safety.
Ulmer said he realized the game’s outcome could have been closer or different had Ryan played. Ryan accounted for 216 rushing yards and all four of South River’s touchdowns in last year’s 28-3 victory.
“The kid is a probably a Division I kid,” Ulmer said, “and what a nice kid, too. Afterwards, he was coming up, congratulating us, talking to my kids. I wish that kid all the best. He will play somewhere, and he’s going to have a great career.”