As Dan Higgins’ players, some of them understandably reduced to tears, huddled around him postgame at midfield, the Piscataway High School head football coach struggled to find the right words to console his team after it endured a 28-20 first-round NJSIAA playoff loss to Union in bizarre fashion.
Piscataway dominated the clock, possessing the ball for more than 33 minutes, and outgained the opposition 328 to 278 in total yards from scrimmage, but had nothing but a shocking early postseason exit for its effort.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Higgins, who has built Piscataway into a perennial state power. “What do you say to a team that gave it everything they had? They did really well out there, but just had a couple of plays that changed the game. It’s tough on them.”
With the Chiefs driving for a score that would have put them up by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, backup quarterback Kaamal Stewart, in for starter Danny Haus, who was sidelined after enduring a late hit out of bounds earlier in the drive, couldn’t mesh with running back Elijah Barnwell on a handoff.
Free safety Chris Ortiz scooped up the loose ball and returned the fumbled exchange 96 yards untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown that gave sixth-seeded Union (5-4) a one-point lead over the third-seeded Chiefs (6-3) and served as the turning point in the upset before a stunned home crowd at Ciardi Stadium on Saturday.
“If they would have went up two scores it would have been a tough situation, “but we (bore) down and got a turnover” Ortiz said. “The ball came loose, I picked it up, made one cut to get away from the quarterback and I saw open field.”
Union advanced to the North 2 Group V semifinals against second-seeded and undefeated Westfield (9-0), which coasted to a 49-7 victory over Columbia in another opening-round game.
The big plays the Chiefs have uncharacteristically allowed all season, and which led to their demise while squandering fourth-quarter leads in their other losses to Sayreville and South Brunswick, proved costly again in the playoffs.
A 62-yard run on the third play from scrimmage led to Union’s first score, a 55-yard flea flicker produced its second touchdown, a 96-yard fumble return generated its third score and a 71-yard scamper accounted for the Farmers’ final points.
“We’ve given up the big play and that’s just hard to really wrap your mind around only because it’s not Piscataway,” Higgins said, adding by way of explanation, “I just think everyone was trying to do too much.”
After Ortiz’s fumble return, the Chiefs took the ensuing kickoff and drove to midfield before being forced to punt. On the very next play from scrimmage, Union’s Caleb Holden broke off a back-breaking 71-yard touchdown run to give the Farmers a 28-20 lead with 7:31 remaining.
Haus returned at quarterback for the ensuing series and drove Piscataway to the Union 31 before Barnwell, who carried a career-high 42 times for 199 yards, lost a fumble with 3:29 left in the game.
Despite the turnover – Piscataway’s third of the game – the Chiefs were not done, or so they thought.
On the ensuing series, Barnwell, who doubles as a linebacker, didn’t allow the miscue to impact him on the defensive side as he stuffed Jeron Whitfield on a third-and-1 from the Union 39 that forced the Farmers to punt with 2:15 remaining.
With dangerous specialist Marcel Mason, who set a school record with a 92-yard return earlier in the year, back to receive the punt, the Chiefs had to like their chances of getting the ball back in excellent field position.
The punt, however, which nearly went straight up in the air, floated about 15 yards before crashing to the turf and caroming off an unwitting Piscataway player’s leg. A scramble for the loose ball ensued with Union’s Kyle Boyd recovering to seal the victory.
The game’s third play from scrimmage – a 62-yard run from Whitfield that set up his 1-yard touchdown plunge for an early 7-0 advantage – was a portent of big plays to come.
Piscataway responded immediately with Haus capping a 69-yard drive with a 25-yard scoring strike to Stewart. Haus sold the pump fake beautifully before lofting the ball over a burned defensive back for an easy touchdown that knotted the score at 7-7 just 9:18 into the game.
After linebacker Zaire Ashley recovered a fumble at the Union 20 early in the second quarter, Barnwell carried the ball six consecutive times with his final rush resulting in a 3-yard touchdown run that gave the Chiefs a 14-7 advantage with 9:29 left in the opening half.
On the very next play from scrimmage, quarterback Justin Beckett connected with Holden on a 55-yard touchdown pass off a flea flicker, making the score 14-14.
Ortiz intercepted Haus with 49 seconds left in the second quarter at the Union 12, thwarting another Piscataway drive.
The Chiefs took the second-half kickoff and put together an epic nine-minute, 16-play scoring drive which Barnwell, who carried 11 times on the march for 59 yards, fittingly capped with a 5-yard run for a 20-14 lead with 2:59 left in the third quarter.
A key play in the game took place on Piscataway’s ensuing series when Haus, following a 29-yard run to the Union 12, was hit out of bounds and temporarily knocked out of the contest. Three plays later, Stewart and Barnwell couldn’t connect on a handoff that led to the tide-turning fumble return.
“Kaamal’s taken plenty of varsity snaps,” Higgins said of Stewart, who split time at quarterback with Haus last season. “Elijah felt like he had it in his basket. I don’t know. It’s just one of those weird plays – the whole Miracle in the Meadowlands (type) stuff with Herm Edwards. You know what I mean?”
Haus (9 of 12 for 81 yards) and Barnwell (had his number called on 61 percent or 44 of Piscataway’s 72 plays) were among the players in the postgame huddle who were inconsolable. Higgins struggled to find the right words to give them solace.
“As a coach and a teacher of young men, you have to try to give them guidance in tough situations,” the veteran mentor said, reminding the Chiefs they still have to play Franklin on Thanksgiving Day. “This is when the job is really tough.
“There’s nothing I could say to make them feel any better.”