Practice finally began, scrimmages were played, but – unfortunately for the Farmers – there was no real game-scrimmage this year.
“It was a long off-season,” returning senior quarterback Justin Beckett said. “We couldn’t wait to hit someone else.”
On just the game’s third play from scrimmage, Union senior defensive back Ryan Dolce, a basketball player now playing football, hit Watchung Hills seinor receiver Nadir Beyah after he just caught a screen pass from senior quarterback Jack Smith.
Beyah coughed up the football and then Union senior lineman and Rutgers commit Mike Tverdov recovered the fumble.
Then Beckett ran through a huge hole on the right side and scored a 44-yard touchdown on Union’s first play from scrimmage this season.
Beckett scored again in the second quarter to give Union the lead for good Friday night and then the Farmers dominated the second half en route to a convincing, season-opening 40-13 Mid-State 38 Conference-Watchung Division victory at Union High School’s Cooke Memorial Field.
Union improved to 7-0 against Watchung Hills since the formation of the Mid-State in 2009, with five of the wins – including Friday night’s – by double digits.
It was also the program’s 515th victory, while head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. is starting 1-0 for the first time in his young coaching career, which also includes a head coaching stint at Roselle.
Beckett, now in his second season as Union’s starting quarterback, rushed for three touchdowns and passed for one.
Union senior running backs Al-Tariq Jones and Jeron Whitfield both rushed for touchdowns in the second half. Jones previously had two touchdown runs called back, although Union still scored touchdowns on those drives.
After Watchung Hills turned the ball over about as early on as you could, Union was ready to take advantage of the miscue.
“It was a read option play and I saw them crash on our running back,” Beckett said. “I then saw green and just took it the rest of the way.”
“Justin’s that kind of player,” Grasso Jr. said. “You take the wrong step and he’s gone.”
Watchung Hills came right back to tie the game on a 28-yard touchdown run Smith produced down the right side.
Then Union came back two drives later to reach the end zone again and take the lead for good when Beckett – on fourth-and-goal from the Watchung Hills 6 – completed a pass to senior wide receiver Hansley Cenescar in the left corner of the end zone.
Cenescar did well to grab the ball away – with two hands – from the Watchung Hills defender covering him to put Union back in the lead.
Beckett, who had 88 yards rushing on six carries and one score and was three-for-four passing for 13 yards and one TD in the first half, scored his second touchdown on a six-yard run in the third quarter on a play where the ball was stripped from him, but then he picked it up in the end zone for six points.
Beckett then scored on a 22-yard run along the right side with 44 seconds left in the third. His third extra point that followed made the score 27-7.
After having a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle erased because of a holding penalty during Union’s second scoring drive and then a 43-yard TD scamper down the right sideline called back because of another holding call on Union’s fourth scoring possession, Jones reached the end zone again in the fourth quarter – on a five-yard run – and this time there was no Union penalty to negate it.
Whitfield scored Union’s final points when he broke through a hole and scampered down the left sideline ahead of everyone else for an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of Union’s final possession.
“We have two really good running backs and they both showed what they could do tonight,” Grasso Jr. said.
At the half, Jones had 15 yards on six carries and Whitfield 14 on three.
Both made their presence felt more in the second half.
“When they tied it up we just had to stay in the game and not lose our minds,” Beckett said. “We had a few jitters in the first quarter, but in the second half we came out ready to fight.”
Minus the usual penalties and first-game mistakes, Grasso Jr. liked what he saw to start the season.
“Being 1-0 is the most important thing,” Grasso Jr. said. “The kids have worked really hard since December and now’s the time.”
Dolce also produced a quarterback sack for a 12-yard loss in the second half.
“He’s a really good athlete who has brought in and is now one of our guys,” Grasso Jr. said.
Tverdov also produced a tackle for a big loss after intermission. He also almost hauled in a touchdown pass over the middle.
“We could be state champions,” Beckett said. “I don’t see us losing to anyone as long as we dig deeper and continue to keep working hard the way we have been.”
Beckett, who also had a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter, carried the ball four times for 81 yards in the second half. In total, Beckett carried 10 times for 169 yards and three scores.
UNION IS NOW 7-0 VS. WATCHUNG HILLS
SINCE START OF MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE IN 2009
(the teams did not play each other in 2012):
2016: Union 40, Watchung Hills 13 – at Union
2015: Union 40, Watchung Hills 27 – at Watchung Hills
2014: Union 28, Watchung Hills 23 – at Union
2013: Union 28, Watchung Hills 0 – at Union
2012: Did not play.
2011: Union 21, Watchung Hills 14 – at Union
2010: Union 34, Watchung Hills 7 – at Watchung Hills
2009: Union 35, Watchung Hills 0 – at Watchung Hills
Former Union assistant Jim Benedict was in his final season as head coach in 2009. Union 1983 graduate Marc Crisafi was the head coach from 2010-2014. Union 1988 grad Mike Katz was the head coach in 2015.
Former Union standout Mike Pielech is on first-year head coach Rich Seubert’s staff this season. Seubert was an offensive lineman on the 2007 New York Giants team that defeated 18-0 New England in Super Bowl XVII.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION
Watchung Hills (0-1, 0-1) 07 00 00 06 – 13
Union (1-0, 1-0) 07 07 13 13 – 40
UNION – Justin Beckett 44 run, Justin Beckett kick (U 7-0)
1 play, 44 yards, :10 used
Union capitalized on a turnover – a Mike Tverdov fumble recovery.
WATCHUNG HILLS – Jack Smith 28 run, Brian Puccio kick (7-7)
5 plays, 65 yards, 2:37 used
UNION – Hansley Cenescar 6 pass from Justin Beckett, Justin Beckett kick
8 plays, 48 yards, 3:44 used
UNION – Justin Beckett 6 run, kick failed (U 20-7)
6 plays, 25 yards, 4:40 used
UNION – Justin Beckett 22 run, Justin Beckett kick (U 27-7)
4 plays, 48 yards, 1:29 used
UNION – Al-Tariq Jones 5 run, Justin Beckett kick (U 34-7)
7 plays, 88 yards, 4:19 used
UNION – Jeron Whitfield 83 run, kick failed (U 40-7)
1 play, 83 yards, :10 used
WATCHUNG HILLS – Michael Asante 13 pass from Vincent Marinello,
pass failed (U 40-13)
FRIDAY, SEPT. 9
UNION COUNTY SCOREBOARD
Union 40, Watchung Hills 13 – at Union
Hillsborough 27, Elizabeth 0 – at Elizabeth
Westfield 30, Linden 0 – at Linden
Summit 24, North Hunterdon 13 – at North Hunterdon
Somerville 41, Cranford 17 – at Cranford
Gov. Livingston 21, Voorhees 13 – at Voorhees
Johnson 38, New Providence 0 – at New Providence
Roselle 61, Bernards 54 – at Bernards
Roselle Park 33, South Hunterdon 0 – at South Hunterdon
Brearley 22, Pingry 8 – at Brearley
Belvidere 42, Dayton 0 – at Belvidere
* Eight of a possible 10 Union County teams opened with a victory Friday night.
* Cranford had a 20-game regular season winning streak snapped and fell in a regular season game for the first time since the 2013 season.
* Westfield has now won 14 straight games and 11 consecutive regular season contests.
* Gov. Livingston is 1-0 for the first time since 2009, while Elizabeth and Cranford are both 0-1 for the first time since 2013.