MARCUS BORDEN’S PREDICTION: Well having seen Old Bridge 5 times and South Brunswick 3 times, it is time to pick the final winner for the 2015 football season. After deciding on 151 games: regular season, regional crossovers, Thanksgiving and playoffs, my tally sheet reads 115-36 for 76%. Old Bridge needs to run the football to win. If they can control the clock with Sodano and limit the number of Viking touches, they have a chance. Play action pass by Sitkowski will be key to getting some big plays to Esposito or Imbimbo. The loss of Kodros has limited some of the offensive pass distribution for the Knights. South Brunswick has big strike capabilities with a plethora of weapons starting with Campbell, Jabbe, Allen, Shorter and Liao. Their passing threat has really opened up their running game. The depth of South Brunswick’s roster has allowed them to fill in for the injured Hoff at OL and LB. The Vikings have been on a mission since last December’s loss to Manalapan in the Championship game at Rutgers. They will not be in awe of the atmosphere at High Point Solutions Stadium. They will win this one by a touchdown.
The fact that South Brunswick and Old Bridge reached the NJSIAA Central Group V final should come as no surprise, but the manner in which both triple-option teams advanced to the sectional football championship is intriguing.
Highly touted sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who holds scholarship offers from Rutgers and Maryland, completed just 4 of 8 passes for 71 yards and one score in two playoff games for Old Bridge, while counterpart Josh Liao, an unheralded junior who has emerged as one of the Greater Middlesex Conference’s top signal callers, completed 24 of 30 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns in two postseason contests.
The disparity in passing numbers, in large part, reflects South Brunswick’s arsenal of fleet-footed and sure-handed receivers and Old Bridge’s commitment to the run.
Sitkowski (1,358 yards, 16 TD, 3 INT) and Liao (1,383, 15 TD, 3 INT) enter Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at High Point Solutions Stadium with nearly identical passing numbers through the first 11 games of the season.
South Brunswick posted a 20-9 victory in the regular-season meeting between the Red Division rivals when Liao connected with Justin Shorter for a 46-yard scoring strike to erase a 9-6 deficit with 16 seconds left in the first half. After Dillon Donaldson sacked Sitkowski on fourth-and-long from the South Brunswick 24 late in the third quarter, Liao engineered a 73-yard touchdown march to produce the final margin.
“We were surprised the first game,” Old Bridge head coach Anthony Lanzafama said of South Brunswick’s newfound passing fancy. “Over the last couple of years, they’ve been primarily a running team. We knew they threw. We just didn’t know how much of it was part of their philosophy early on. As the year went on (everyone) realized they were comfortable and content throwing the ball. Obviously, they still run the ball, but (the pass) is a big part of their offense.”
Jake Kodros, a 6-foot-4 wideout who amassed 312 receiving yards for Old Bridge through eight games (several of which he played while hobbled) before enduring a season-ending injury, is missed.
During the postseason, with Kodros standing on the sideline in crutches, Sitkowski has embraced the triple-option, and running backs Jake Esposito and Nick Sodano have been brilliant behind Old Bridge’s gifted offensive line.
“They have run the ball effectively,” South Brunswick head coach Joe Goerge said, “but we know that they are capable of throwing the ball effectively as well. There’s no question about that. Although they may not have shown that in the last two (playoff) games, I think we have to expect that we’ll see their best at running and throwing.”
Old Bridge used its running game to reach a sectional final for the second time in school history (the Knights lost a heartbreaker to J.P. Stevens in 2001).
After rushing for a season-high 326 yards in an opening-round playoff win against Edison, the Knights controlled the clock while amassing 288 yards on the ground in a semifinal victory over New Brunswick.
With Rutgers commit Mohamed Jabbie, Wendell Allen (Monmouth offer) and Shorter (Rutgers recruit) at his disposal, Liao passed for 216 yards in an opening-round drubbing of Hunterdon Central and for 186 yards in a 27-21 semifinal win over defending sectional champion Manalapan.
Facing a fourth-and-goal against Manalapan, Liao audibled from a run to a pass, connecting with Jabbie for a 1-yard scoring strike on the game’s final play that catapulted South Brunswick into the sectional final for the third time in the past four years (the Vikings defeated Manalapan in 2012 and lost a rematch between the schools last year).
“I look at Josh as an intelligent kid with unbelievable work ethic, and I think he has a very even-keeled way about him,” Goerge said. “Emotionally, he’s a very solid kid under pressure, and I guess that was never more evident than on that last drive against Manalapan.
“It doesn’t really surprise me,” Goerge said of Liao’s success, noting his quarterback has “gone above and beyond what we had probably hoped for. He has been consistent all year for us — running the ball and throwing the ball.”
Staff Writer Greg Tufaro: firstname.lastname@example.org
NJSIAA CENTRAL GROUP V FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Who: No. 1 seed South Brunswick (10-1) vs. No. 3 seed Old Bridge (8-3).
Where/When: High Point Solutions Stadium, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Tickets: $9 adults; $3 students and senior citizens.
Old Bridge results: North Brunswick 27-6 (W), Edison 45-27 (W), South Brunswick 20-9 (L), J.P. Stevens 40-18 (W), Brick Memorial 31-17 (L), Sayreville 28-21 (W), Monroe 21-6 (W), Piscataway 42-14 (L), Edison 38-35 (W), New Brunswick 26-12 (W), East Brunswick 20-7 (W).
South Brunswick results: Middletown South 41-21 (L), J.P. Stevens 44-6 (W), Old Bridge 20-9 (W), Sayreville 32-12 (W), East Brunswick 31-0 (W), Monroe 52-7 (W), Edison 43-14 (W), Piscataway 14-10 (W), Hunterdon Central 46-7 (W), Manalapan 27-21 (W), North Brunswick 41-14 (W).
Old Bridge playoff history: The Knights, who have never won a sectional title and appeared in the final just once (losing to J.P. Stevens in 2001) own a 7-9 postseason record. They have qualified 10 times for the NJSIAA playoffs.
South Brunswick playoff history: The Vikings have made eight NJSIAA playoff appearances and own a 10-6 postseason record. They are making their third sectional final appearance in the last four years. South Brunswick defeated Manalapan for a title in 2012 and lost a championship game to Manalapan last season.
Old Bridge: Passing – Artur Sitkowski (91 of 173 for 1,358 yards, 16 TD, 3 INT). Rushing – Nick Sodano (161 carries, 932 yards, 11 TD); Jake Esposito (83 carries, 571 yards, 7 TD); Artur Sitkowski (75 carries, 147 yards, 2 TD). Receiving – Jake Esposito (38 receptions, 665 yards, 8 TD); Anthony Imbimbo (28 receptions, 389 yards, 5 TD); Jake Kodros (18 receptions, 291 yards, 3 TD). Sacks – Tru Stell (2); T.J. Townsend (2). Tackles – Tru Stell (55); Omar Conill (51); T.J. Townsend (44); Nick Sodano (44); Nick Dimeglio (43); Jake Esposito (40). Interceptions – Jake Esposito (4); Anthony Imbimbo (3), Paul Ferrali (2). Fumble recoveries – Five players (1).
South Brunswick statistical leaders: Passing – Josh Liao (77 of 122 for 1,383, 15 TD, 3 INT). Rushing – Phil Campbell (130 carries, 749 yards, 13 TD); Wendell Allen (70 carries, 461 yards, 6 TD); Josh Liao (51 carries, 309 yards, 7 TD); Jaier Garrett (21 carries, 214 yards, 2 TD); Mohamed Jabbie (16 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD). Receiving – Mohamed Jabbie (34 receptions, 567 yards, 6 TD); Justin Shorter (26 receptions, 489 yards, 7 TD); Jaier Garrett (5 receptions, 173 yards, 2 TD); Wendell Allen (10 receptions, 151 yards, 1 TD). Sacks – Xavier Cargile (4); Tom Leavy (3); Dillon Donaldson (2.5); Dylan Kriz (2); Josh Hypolite (2); Andre Eldridge (2). Tackles – Phil Campbell (103); Xavier Cargile (66); Mohamed Jabbie (61); Dylan Kriz (54); Andre Eldridge (54); Dillon Donaldson (53); Richie Hoff (47); Tom Leavy (39); Jaier Garrett (39). Interceptions – Phil Campbell (3); Jaier Garrett (3); Mohamed Jabbie (2); Wendell Allen (2); Justin Shorter (2). Fumble recoveries – Richie Hoff (2).