EAST RUTHERFORD – Juwan Dolbrice never returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
He picked the absolute best time to do it – with just over two minutes left in the season and his scholastic football career.
Picking up the ball at his own 25, Dolbrice found a hole up the middle and then ran 75 yards – untouched – to what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
To add to his late-game heroics, No. 2 picked off a pass in the right corner of the end zone with less than 25 seconds to go to seal Linden’s second state championship in the playoff era and first in 29 years.
Dolbrice also threw two touchdown passes to help lead top-seeded Linden to a 27-20 win over third-seeded Elizabeth in Sunday’s third North 2, Group 5 championship game at MetLife Stadium.
Linden, which captured North 2, Group 3 in 1985 for its only other title in the playoff era – this was also only the third state championship game Linden was playing in – snapped a four-game losing streak to Elizabeth, including a 28-19 loss at Elizabeth on Nov. 7.
Elizabeth is 23-7 against Linden in regular season games the past 30 seasons and was also 2-0 vs. the Tigers in playoff games – both in North 2, Group 4 (2002 and 2006) – prior to Sunday.
Linden, which won its most games since 1986, finished 10-2. Elizabeth, which won the first North 2, Group 5 title in 2012, finished 9-3.
“We did this for the city of Linden,” said Dolbrice, who was also a starter on Linden’s Group 4 state championship basketball team last winter.
When asked which championship he cherished most, Dolbrice said: “Football, definitely. I played a bigger role, plus Coach Candia is a Linden guy and we’re so happy for him.”
It was a Dolbrice touchdown pass to Donte Waldron and a Kyle Phipps two-point run with nine seconds left in the second quarter that put Linden ahead 20-7 at intermission.
To Elizabeth’s credit, the Minutemen battled back and never gave up. Kyron Paige scored on an 80-yard run down the left sideline in the third quarter and then with 2:51 left he scored again on a 12-yard run. The ensuing extra point by Fritz Paul tied the game at 20-20, but only for a brief moment before Dolbrice did his thing.
“I just wanted to make a play,” Dolbrice said of his game-winning kickoff return touchdown. “I saw a hole and then just sprinted.”
Phipps and Dolbrice are cousins. Linden Athletic Director Steve Yesinko called them, “heart and soul,” after the game.
Phipps scored Linden’s second touchdown on a two-yard run in the second quarter.
“We were the better team,” Phipps said. “We played Linden football and Tymir Hinton was the difference on defense.”
Hinton, a senior linebacker, did not play against Elizabeth in the regular season game, out with a injury.
“We knew we had to pick it up defensively and Tymir was a big part of that,” Linden seventh-year head coach Deon Candia said. (Elizabeth head coach) John Quinn is such a great coach. We had to weather the storm.”
When asked about the last performance Dolbrice put forth for him, Candia said, “he’s a playmaker. Watching him run back that kickoff, wow.
“We thought Elizabeth might kick it near him or his way. We were fortunate Juwan was able to get his hands on the ball and go.”
Linden got to sectional semifinals the past two years, losing at Warren Hills 21-7 in a 2012 North 2, Group 4 semi and then at eventual champion Ridge 28-14 in a 2013 North 2, Group 4 semi.
This year the Tigers got the top seed in North 2, Group 5 and won their first two games at home.
“Everything’s a process,” said Candia, who wiped away happy tears on the sidelines moments after Linden’s triumph. “Our kids never gave up.”
Candia said guys from the 1985 championship team talked to Linden players at practice and also attended the championship game.
“That was really something special,” Candia said.
Linden is now 2-1 in championship games and Elizabeth is 8-2, with Quinn leading the Minutemen to three title contests in his five seasons at the helm.
2014 NORTH 2, GROUP 5 FINAL AT METLIFE STADIUM
3-ELIZABETH (9-3) 0 7 6 7 – 20
1-LINDEN (10-2) 6 14 0 7 – 27
Linden – Corey Ampey 7 pass from Juwan Dolbrice, run failed (L 6-0)
8 plays, 62 yards, 4:14 used
Elizabeth – Jahmin Muse 25 pass from Tyree Guitierrez, Fritz Paul kick (E 7-6)
9 plays, 85 yards, 2:37 used
Linden – Kyle Phipps 2 run, pass failed (L 12-7)
3 plays, 26 yards, 1:22 used
Linden – Donte Waldron 7 pass from Juwan Dolbrice, Phipps run (L 20-7)
9 play, 61 yards, 4:43
Elizabeth – Kyron Paige 80 run, kick failed (L 20-13)
1 play, 80 yards, :13 used
Elizabeth – Kyron Paige 12 run, Fritz Paul kick (20-20)
10 plays, 75 yards, 4:07 used
Linden – Juwan Dolbrice 75 kickoff return, Corey Ampey kick (L 27-20)
UNDEFEATED FOOTBALL TEAMS
IN NEW JERSEY FOR 2014:
WESTWOOD (12-0) – North 1, Group 2 champ
MOUNTAIN LAKES (12-0) – North 2, Group 2 champ
HADDONFIELD (12-0) – South Jersey, Group 2 champ
VERONA (11-0) – North 1, Group 1 champ
ST. JOSEPH’S, (HAMM.) (11-0) – Non-Public, Group 1 champ