PISCATAWAY – Being in the right place at the right time is often a requirement for a player who takes on the task of being a defensive back.
On two very big occasions Union senior captain Chris Ortiz played the position to perfection.
First Ortiz prevented Piscataway from gaining a go-ahead touchdown right before halftime, jumping up and intercepting a pass at the Union 10.
Then, with Piscataway deep in Union territory again and seeking to once more take a two-touchdown lead, Ortiz came up with a play that will go down as one of the biggest ever in Union playoff history.
Union had little success slowing down talented Piscataway runner Elijah Barnwell as evidenced by the junior tailback rushing for 194 yards on 44 carries and two touchdowns.
However, when Barnwell could not hold on to the ball, Union was there to capitalize. Barnwell coughed up the ball twice in Union territory in the fourth quarter, with the Farmers recovering both times.
The first time came on third-and-one from the Union three-yard line on the third play of the fourth quarter. Piscataway had a six-point lead and was looking to put the game out of reach.
The snap from backup quarterback Kaamal Stewart – starter Daniel Haus was out of the game briefly after getting hit out of bounds – to Barnwell was not clear, with Barnwell dropping the ball.
There was Ortiz, who scooped up the ball at the five, found his way through an immediate scrum and then sprinted – untouched – down the middle of the field and into the end zone for a game-tying 95-yard fumble recovery return.
“He had 112 tackles at safety last year,” Union head coach Lou Grasso Jr. said. “He’s a great kid, who is a great leader. He’s someone to be patterned after.”
Ortiz’s touchdown was just one of several huge plays Union produced from that point on as the sixth-seeded Farmers were able to come back and stun the third-seeded Chiefs 28-20 in Saturday’s North 2, Group 5 quarterfinal at Piscataway.
“I saw he (Barnwell) dropped the ball, so I cut on the quarterback and picked it up,” said Ortiz, who left the game for good later in the fourth quarter after feeling woozy from a hit. “The next thing I saw was open field. I was first getting ready to make the tackle before he dropped it.”
“We had some tough losses against Bridgewater-Raritan (13-7) and Elizabeth (10-7) with several plays not going our way,” Grasso said. “Maybe with that play (the Barnwell fumble-Ortiz touchdown) we got one back.”
UNION NOW 2-3 VS. PISCATAWAY IN THE PLAYOFFS:
2015: Union 28, Piscataway 20
North 2, Group 5 quarterfinals at Piscataway
2013: Union 47, Piscataway 24
North 2, Group 5 semifinals at Union
2008: Piscataway 27, Union 3
North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Piscataway
2004: Piscataway 41, Union 0
North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals at Piscataway
2003: Piscataway 29, Union 7
North 2, Group 4 final at Giants Stadium
Union’s third victory in a row put its record at 5-4, with the Farmers now moving on to the semifinals where they will play at second-seeded Westfield next Saturday afternoon. Westfield improved to 9-0 this year and has an overall winning streak of 10 games after trouncing seventh-seeded Columbia 49-14 Saturday.
The section’s other semifinal pits fifth-seeded Ridge (6-4) at top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan (10-0) next Friday night. BR defeated Ridge at home 47-27 on Nov. 6 in Mid-State 38 Conference-Delaware Division play. BR won the Delaware Division title for the first time, finishing 7-0 in league play.
Union, which won its first road playoff game since 1996 after losing eight straight, will face Westfield in the playoffs for only the second time and the first time since 1981 when the Farmers blanked the Blue Devils 14-0 at the old Giants Stadium in a North 2, Group 4 semifinal. That game was also the first time Union head coach Lou Rettino beat Westfield head coach Gary Kehler after going 0-for-5 against him his first five tries in the regular season.
UNION SNAPS 8-GAME ROAD PLAYOFF LOSING STREAK:
2012: Lost at Franklin 38-14 in N2, G5 quarterfinals
2011: Lost at Elizabeth 25-7 in N2, G4 quarterfinals
2008: Lost at Piscataway 27-3 in N2, G4 semifinals
2006: Lost at Phillipsburg 42-20 in N2, G4 semifinals
2005: Lost at Phillipsburg 56-14 in N2, G4 semifinals
2004: Lost at Piscataway 41-0 in N2, G4 quarterfinals
1999: Lost to Montclair 13-7 at Rutgers in N2, G4 semifinals
1997: Lost at Elizabeth 20-6 in N2, G4 quarterfinals
* Last road playoff win prior to Saturday was a
34-26 triumph over an 8-0 and top-seeded Elizabeth team
in the 1996 N2, G4 semifinal played at Williams Field.
After Union placekicker Jordan Marroquien put the Farmers ahead for good at 21-20 following the Ortiz touchdown, Union’s next big play came after the Farmers halted Piscataway on its third second-half possession.
Union senior running back-defensive back Caleb Holden, who almost came up with an interception at his own 32 during the Piscataway drive, quickly made up for the drop just two plays later and only one play after Piscataway punted the ball back to Union.
On the very first play of Union’s next drive – which started at its own 29 – Holden took the handoff from Union junior quarterback Justin Beckett, broke through a hole and then found room on the left side to race the rest of the way into the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown.
Marroquien’s fourth extra point put Union ahead 28-20.
“I saw a crease and then just ran as fast as I could,” said Holden, who scored two of Union’s four touchdowns.
There was still 7:31 to go, but Union had just dramatically turned what appeared like what was going to be a loss into what was about to be an upset victory.
Piscataway drove back into Union territory and had a first-and-10 at the Union 38. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, Barnwell lost control of the ball again, with Union senior Kyle Boyd there to recover the fumble with 3:29 to go.
Union could not get a first down on its ensuing drive and then the Union punt went straight up in the air against the wind, going no more than five yards. However, it came down on the foot of a Piscataway player and bounced away, with Union junior Nestor Conforti (No. 99) appearing to come up with the fumble recovery.
That gave Union the ball back with 2:15 to go and Piscataway out of timeouts.
Union ran the clock out and in its third try came away with a playoff victory over the Chiefs on their own field.
It took Union just four plays to score its first touchdown. Piscataway won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, giving Union the ball first.
Making his presence felt for Union immediately was junior running back Jeron Whitfield, who is up from the junior varsity and was making just his third varsity start.
Whitfield gained two yards on his first carry and then on his next one broke free and sprinted down the right sideline 62 yards to the Piscataway 1. He then scored from the one on the next play.
Piscataway answered with touchdowns in the first and second quarters – the second one after Union lost a fumble on a pass completion – to take a 14-7 lead.
However, before it could even think about finally taking the lead, Piscataway was caught out of position when Union attempted some trickery.
With just over nine minutes to go in the second quarter, Union attempted a flea flicker play for the first time this year. It worked.
“We put the play in Monday and was just waiting to give it a try,” Grasso said.
Beckett gave the ball to Whitfield, who tossed it back to Beckett. Meanwhile, Holden got ahead of two Piscataway defenders and was wide open. Beckett didn’t get him the ball immediately, but his pass did reach Holden, who then raced into the end zone untouched for a 55-yard TD reception.
“We thought about trying that on the first play of the game, but we didn’t have the wind,” Grasso said. “As soon as we got the wind and were in good position, we decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t have worked any better.
“We knew Piscataway would be very run-conscience. We had confidence in the play after practicing it after we put it in.”
NOTES: Whitfield finished with 115 yards rushing on 18 carries. He had 103 on 11 attempts in the first half.
“He’s really answered the call and is a pleasure to coach,” Grasso said.
When Holden scored in the fourth quarter, it was only the fourth offensive play Union ran up to that point in the second half. Piscataway’s opening second-half drive – which produced its final points – took nine minutes.
On that drive Barnwell carried the ball 11 times for 64 yards. He had 83 yards on 20 carries in the first half and 111 yards on 24 attempts in the second.
“We had a bend, but not break effort defensively,” Grasso said.
Since Westfield moved to the Watchung Division last year, Union and Westfield did not face each other last year or this year. If Westfield beats Plainfield at home on Thanksgiving the Blue Devils will win the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division title for the first time.
The last time Union faced Westfield was on Oct. 12, 2013, with Union winning 25-14 at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium, which will be the site of next week’s playoff semifinal.
“We know Westfield’s undefeated and has a good team,” Ortiz said. “Even though we were 2-4 we knew we had a good team. In some games we were just one play away. We’ve improved.”
“We had to take care of the little stuff and play together as a team,” Holden said. “We had to finish drives and score once we got into the red zone.”
“I haven’t really seen a whole lot of Westfield yet since they play in another division,” Grasso said. “They’re always physically tough and scrappy and coach (Jim) DeSarno always has his kids ready to play.
“We’re just happy to be in the semifinals again. I told the kids at 2-4 that we still had an opportunity to fix this. They’ve responded.”
Piscataway, which began 5-0, but has lost three of its last four to drop to 6-3, will wrap its 2015 campaign at home against Franklin on Thanksgiving morning.
Piscataway owned North 2, Group 4 for nearly a decade, but has yet to win North 2, Group 5. The section’s champions so far include Elizabeth in 2012, Ridge in 2013 and Linden in 2014.
Piscataway won North 2, Group 4 five times – 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2011 – from its first year in the section in 2003 to its last year in the section in 2011.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 QUARTERFINAL AT PISCATAWAY
6-Union (5-4) 7 7 0 14 – 28
3-Piscataway (6-3) 7 7 6 0 – 20
UNION – Jeron Whitfield 1 run, Jordan Marroquien kick (U 7-0)
4 plays, 74 yards, 1:33 used
PISCATAWAY – Kaamal Stewart 25 pass from Daniel Haus,
Mike Stalenyi kick (7-7)
8 plays, 69 yards, 3:43 used
PISCATAWAY – Elijah Barnwell 3 run, Mike Stalenyi kick (P 14-7)
6 plays, 20 yards, 2:15 used
Piscataway capitalized on a turnover – a fumble recovery by Zaire Ashley.
UNION – Caleb Holden 55 pass from Justin Beckett,
Jordan Marroquien kick (14-14)
1 play, 55 yards, :11 used
PISCATAWAY – Elijah Barnwell 6 run, kick failed (P 20-14)
16 plays, 77 yards, 9:01 used
UNION – Chris Ortiz 95 fumble recovery,
Jordan Marroquien kick (U 21-20)
UNION – Caleb Holden 71 run, Jordan Marroquien kick (U 28-20)
1 play, 71 yards, :13 used
UNION COUNTY PLAYOFF SCOREBOARD:
Saturday, Nov. 14
North 2, Group 5
Union 28, Piscataway 20 – at Piscataway
Westfield 49, Columbia 14 – at Westfield
Central Jersey, Group 2
Lincoln 30, Roselle 13 – at Lincoln