Bridgewater-Raritan learned that lesson well in a 24-14 loss to the Blue Devils in last year’s NJSIAA sectional semifinals.
As the teams prepare for the North 2 Group V championship game in a battle of unbeatens at MetLife Stadium on Thursday at 8 p.m., Panthers head coach Scott Bray knows his defense must respect the pass.
“Curry is outstanding, probably the best back we play against all year,” Bray said of the senior, who has rushed for 1,619 of his 3,137 career yards and scored 27 of his 39 career touchdowns on the ground this season.
“He does some special things, but they also do a nice job working the pass off their run.”
Senior quarterback Zach Kelly, who completed 9 of 14 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in last year’s playoff meeting between the schools, has completed 53 percent (52 of 98) of his passes for 734 yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“We’ve got some good receivers but we want to try to run the ball first,” Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno said of his pro-style offense. “(Curry) is not the biggest, he’s not the fastest and he’s not the strongest. But he has a combination of all those three things. He’s got good balance, good vision and has a chance to make a play on every (snap). He’s fun to watch, that’s for sure.”
Bridgewater-Raritan counters with senior quarterback Eric Nickel, who has passed for 1,820 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 577 yards and eight more scores. Nickel spreads the offensive wealth, with five wideouts each amassing 115 or more receiving yards.
“He’s having a real special season,” Bray said of his 6-foot-4, 225-pound signal caller. “He does a great job managing the game for us. He understands what we are trying to get done. When we want to take a shot, he’s smart about it (just four interceptions in 204 attempts). The other (dimension) is his running ability. He’s not a speed demon type of kid, but he’s done a nice job when we ask him to run the ball.”
Bray said the key to his team’s no-huddle pro-style offense is to get into a rhythm and make opponents “play a little bit on their heels.”
“We’ve got to go out and play aggressive football against them,” Bray said. “Our goal every time going into the game is – we preach to the kids – we want to have an aggressive mentality, be it in the run game or pass game. We want to control the tempo. We don’t want their defense to dictate the tempo.”
Senior outside linebacker Owen Colwell (team-leading 84 tackles), who is headed to Johns Hopkins University to play lacrosse, and fellow linebacker Steve Barmakian, who will play baseball in college at George Washington University, epitomize Westfield’s athleticism on defense. Mike O’Connor and Jacob Kurstedt are equally stellar at the position.
“Their skill kids really scare us,” DeSarno said of Bridgewater-Raritan’s high-powered offense, adding that the Panthers on defense are “very fast and swarm to the ball.”
Matt Alesandro, an undersized defensive lineman, has utilized his quickness to pressure opposing quarterbacks and to stuff the run. Cole Harper leads the Panthers with 12 sacks. Sophomore Justin Bryant and junior Nick Mitchell lead the team with 88 and 76 tackles, respectively, from their linebacker positions. John Kaye is a lock-down cornerback who also provides solid run support, which is integral to Bridgewater-Raritan’s scheme. Senior safety Matt Miliotis is another key player in the secondary.
Should the game come down to special teams, each side features an outstanding placekicker in Michael Moriarty (43 of 49 PAT, 7 of 8 FG) of Westfield and Justin Davidovicz (38 of 41 PAT, 10 of 13 FG) of Bridgewater-Raritan.
“As a spectator – with two offenses that have been putting points up – you understand coming into this game you could see some fireworks from either side,” Bray said. “This is two sound football teams squaring off, which is what you want to see (in a championship).”
NJSIAA NORTH 2 GROUP V FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Who: No. 1 seed Bridgewater-Raritan (11-0) vs. No. 2 seed Westfield (11-0).
Where/When: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, Thursday, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $9 adults; $3 students and senior citizens.
Parking: $12 per vehicle.
Stadium regulations: Umbrellas are permitted, flags and signs are prohibited.
Westfield results: Montgomery 35-6, Scotch Plains-Fanwood 42-10, Linden 10-7, Ridge 37-13, Immaculata 34-6, North Hunterdon 45-6, Watchung Hills 40-0, Hunterdon Central 33-14, Columbia 49-7, Union 44-14, Plainfield 32-6.
Bridgewater-Raritan results: Hunterdon Central 29-14, Phillipsburg 31-28, Union 13-7, Hillsborough 28-0, Elizabeth 20-14, Watchung Hills 42-28, Franklin 34-7, North Hunterdon 26-0, Ridge 47-27, East Orange 41-14, Ridge 30-29 (OT).
Westfield playoff history: The Blue Devils, who have reached the NJSIAA playoffs 17 times, own a 12-14 postseason record. Westfield, which last won a sectional title in 1977 at Meadowlands Stadium, is making its fourth championship appearance. The 1977 championship squad featured Butch Woolfolk, who set the career rushing record at the University of Michigan before enjoying a six-year NFL career with the Giants, Oilers and Lions.
Bridgewater-Raritan playoff history: The Panthers, who own a 5-7 postseason record, have qualified for the NJSIAA playoffs eight times. Thursday marks their first sectional final appearance. Prior to the merger of Bridgewater-Raritan East and Bridgewater-Raritan West to form one high school, East won a Central Group II championship in 1989 and a sectional title in 1974.
Westfield statistical leaders: Passing – Zach Kelly (52 of 98 for 734 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT); Phillip Martini (51 of 81 for 717 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT). Rushing – Jack Curry (259 carries, 1,619 yards, 27 TD); Matt Varano (83 carries, 528 yards, 4 TD); Zach Kelly (34 carries, 147 yards, 1 TD). Receiving – Jack Shirk (32 receptions, 461 yards, 5 TD); Chris Boutsikaris (22 receptions, 356 yards, 6 TD); Jelani Pierre (19 receptions, 292 yards, 3 TD); JD Marner (9 receptions, 148 yards, 1 TD); Kyle Dombroski (8 receptions, 115 yards, 1 TD). Kicking – Michael Moriarty (43 of 49 PAT, 7 of 8 FG). Sacks – Owen Kessler (9); Nick Maher (5); Jeffrey Gagum (5); Jake Vall-Illobera (4.5); Kyle Dombroski (4). Tackles – Owen Colwell (84); Jacob Kurstedt (59); Nick Maher (59); Owen Kessler (55); Steve Barmakian (54); Jeff Gagum (52); Mike O’Connor (50); Ishmael Glasco (50); Kyle Dombroski (41); Sid Douglas (40); Shea Elliott (38); Brett Robertshaw (36). Interceptions – Mike O’Connor (2); Jacob Kurstedt (2). Fumble recoveries – Seven players (1).
Bridgewater-Raritan statistical leaders: Passing – Eric Nickel (124 of 204 for 1,820 yards, 20 TD, 4 INT). Rushing – Eric Nickel (128 carries, 577 yards, 8 TD); David Usewick (100 carries, 454 yards, 2 TD); John Kaye (81 carries, 325 yards, 7 TD); Ray Bellaran (28 carries, 158 yards, 2 TD); Tommy Bartocci (33 carries, 110 yards, 1 TD). Receiving – Ricky Tate (36 receptions, 641 yards, 6 TD); Matt Miliotis (29 receptions, 414 yards, 2 TD); John Kaye (13 receptions, 227 yards, 1 TD); Nick Attanasio (7 receptions, 189 yards, 4 TD); Mike Celli (19 catches, 160 yards, 2 TD). Kicking – Justin Davidovicz (38 of 41 PAT, 10 of 13 FG). Sacks – Cole Harper (12); Trevor Smith (3). Tackles – Justin Bryant (88); Nick Mitchell (76); John Kaye (76); Matt Alesandro (58); Ethan Rodgers (57); Cole Harper (55); Trevor Smith (54); Matt Miliotis (47); Nick Attanasio (44), Anthony Vizzoni (41); Mike Celli (34). Interceptions – Matt Miliotis (5), Nick Attanasio (3); Justin Bryant (2); Ricky Tate (2). Fumble recoveries – Mike Celli (2); Nate Muniz (2).
Staff Writer Greg Tufaro: email@example.com
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