CRANFORD – Unlike previous opponents, Cranford made Ridge work real hard.
The Cougars were the first team to take a lead on the Red Devils and they also managed to rush for 221 yards by halftime.
Not bad for a Group 3 school vs. an undefeated Group 5 squad.
If the Red Devils were to remain undefeated, they also had to find a way to contain talented Cranford senior quarterback Reggie Green.
While Ridge held its own against the Pitt-bound Green, it was Cranford that had a difficult time defending Red Devils junior signal-caller Conor Hughes.
Completing throws to four different receivers, the green uniform-wearing Hughes connected on 10-of-17 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and one first half interception by Green.
“Conor has great poise and knows how to take care of the football,” Ridge fourth-year head coach Bill Tracy said.
Senior fullback Evan Skea was equally dangerous, rushing for 90 yards on 14 carries, scoring a game-leading three touchdowns and making numerous key tackles from his defensive end position.
“Evan is one of the top guys in the state,” Tracy said. “We put him as our focal point.”
Sparked by the outstanding performances of Hughes and Skea and the fact that the Cougars were crushed by three really big penalties, Ridge remained undefeated after downing Cranford 35-21 Friday night at Memorial Field.
“We knew Cranford was good and that we had to stop Green who’s pretty good,” Hughes said.
Ridge is now 7-0 and remains the leader of the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division at 5-0. The Red Devils also began the weekend second in power points in North 2, Group 5.
Cranford had a three-game winning streak snapped and fell to 5-2. The Cougars are tied for second with Delaware Valley and Johnson in the Raritan Division at 3-1, all three behind leader Summit. The defending North 2, Group 3 champions began the week second in power points in that section.
Both squads have already clinched playoff berths. Ridge’s last game that will count toward giving it more power points will be next Friday night’s home date with Hunterdon Central (3-4). Also having a three-game winning streak snapped at home, Hunterdon Central lost to Immaculata 35-31 Friday night.
Cranford’s final game on its playoff resume is next Friday night’s clash at arch rival Johnson. The Crusaders easily won at Somerville 35-7 Friday night, winning for the fourth time in a row to improve to 5-1.
Cranford drove 80 yards in 18 plays and used an even 10 minutes to pull to within one touchdown at 28-21 with 5:44 remaining. After stopping Ridge on a three-and-out, the Cougars got the ball back on their own 15 with 4:18 remaining and two timeouts left.
However, Cranford could not move the ball after that, with Green throwing incomplete on fourth-and-four from his own 21. Skea applied great pressure, chasing Green and making it difficult for him to complete a pass to an open receiver.
Four plays later, Skea reached the end zone for a third time, scoring on a nine-yard run to clinch the victory.
Ridge, which has won all seven of its games so far by double digits, never trailed before Friday night. Cranford made that possible after taking the opening kickoff and marching 70 yards in 15 plays, while taking a lot longer than half of the first quarter to do so.
Green carried seven times for 29 yards on the scoring drive and rushed for all four first downs. Teammates Evan Zoughy, Chris Folinusz and Jimmy Dwyer also gained yardage, with Cranford using four ball-carriers to reach paydirt.
Dwyer, who completed the march with an 18-yard touchdown run untouched after taking a pitch right, finished with two TDs. Green was held to 64 yards on 23 carries and did not score.
“We scored on our first drive a lot last year, but weren’t able to our last couple of games,” Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier said. “We were able to put together a nice drive there.”
After holding Ridge to without a first down on its initial drive, Cranford began its second possession from its own 30. On first down, Green had a long run negated because of a Cranford clip. The Cougars would have had a first down in Ridge territory. Instead, Cranford was pushed back to its 34.
That was the first Cranford killer penalty.
Because on the next play, the Cougars lost a fumble that Ridge linebacker Connor Stieglitz recovered at the Cranford 35.
“That turnover was huge,” Hughes said. “It was a big factor and changed the game.”
Hughes then dropped back and found speedy junior receiver Nick Franzese wide open over the middle for a quick 35-yard touchdown pass.
“We like to be aggressive with our passing game,” Tracy said.
“We got our momentum going there,” Hughes said.
Where it took Cranford 8:31 to score its first seven points, it only took Ridge seven seconds to reach the end zone on its first scoring drive.
While it appeared that Cranford might be on its way to making the score 14-0 in its favor, Ridge tied the game at 7-7.
On its next drive, Cranford had a 26-yard touchdown run by Zoughy called back because of a holding penalty. Cranford did not score on the drive, which stalled at the Ridge 29.
The Red Devils answered five plays later with Skea’s first touchdown run, which was an eight-yard sprint.
To Cranford’s credit, the Cougars answered quickly themselves when Zoughy this time reached the end zone without a flag, scoring from 13 yards out on option left.
Zoughy proved to be a bit too fast at times for Ridge to handle as evidenced by his game-high 137 yards on 10 carries by halftime. He only carried four times for minus two yards in the second half.
Ridge took the lead for good on the very last play of the first half. On second-and-10 from the Cranford 30 and with just 5.9 seconds left, Hughes threw a pass to the left side of the field that junior tight end Ryan Bell came down with in the end zone. Bell dove for the ball in front of him – catching it with both hands – while just barely keeping it from hitting the ground when he came down with it.
“Ryan Bell made a great catch,” Hughes said.
“That play was a streak to Bell and he made a great catch on it,” Tracy said. “He’s been outstanding and he works so hard.”
Still ahead 21-14 four minutes into the third quarter, Ridge took its second possession of the second half and managed to march 96 yards in 12 plays, using 4:21. The main reason the drive continued on was that Cranford was called for roughing-the-passer on an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the Cougar 14.
Cranford thought it had Ridge stopped. However, the Red Devils would score two plays after the huge penalty, with Skea running in from the four-yard line.
“Penalties are part of the game,” Rosenmeier said. “Not to take anything away from Ridge, but we have a touchdown called back, Reggie’s run comes back because of a clip and then we thought we had them stopped and we get called with roughing the passer.”
Ridge, averaging its wins by 21 points, had Franzese and Bell catch three passes each in the first half, Franzese for 78 yards and one score and Bell for 63 and his one TD.
“We knew they couldn’t match up with our receivers,” Hughes said.
Registering quarterback sacks in the second half were Cranford senior lineman Jeff Weiss and Skea. Cranford junior lineman Brian Bruns applied outstanding pressure in the second half, chasing Hughes all over the field.
“Players like Zoughy and Bruns have stepped up their games,” Rosenmeier said.
“Cranford’s a great team,” Tracy said. “This was the first time we trailed all season. Their offense was tough and we worked hard all week preparing for it.”
“Both teams played pretty well,” Rosenmeier said.
NOTES: Going back to the end of the 2010 season, Cranford was 16-2 in its previous 18 games before facing Ridge. The only two losses in that span were to Summit in the regular season last year and this year.
This was Cranford’s first loss to a team other than Summit since a 36-35 overtime defeat at Delaware Valley on Nov. 5, 2010.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-INTERDIVISION GAME
AT MEMORIAL FIELD
RIDGE (7-0) 7 14 7 7 – 35
CRANFORD (5-2) 7 7 0 7 – 21
CRANFORD – Jimmy Dwyer 18 run, Troy Kettler kick (C 7-0)
15 plays, 70 yards, 8:31 used
RIDGE – Nick Franzese 35 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
1 play, 35 yards, :07 used
Ridge capitalized on a turnover – a Cranford fumble.
RIDGE – Evan Skea 8 run, Conor Hughes kick (R 14-7)
5 plays, 71 yards, 5:56 used
CRANFORD – Evan Zoughy 13 run, Troy Kettler kick (14-14)
5 plays, 80 yards, 1:52 used
RIDGE – Ryan Bell 30 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
8 plays, 80 yards, 1:02 used
RIDGE – Evan Skea 4 run, Conor Hughes kick (R 28-14)
12 plays, 96 yards, 4:21 used
CRANFORD – Jimmy Dwyer 1 run, Troy Kettler kick (R 28-21)
18 plays, 80 yards, 10:00 used
RIDGE – Evan Skea 9 run, Conor Hughes kick (R 35-21)
4 plays, 21 yards, 1:30 used