BRIDGEWATER – For almost the entire first half visiting Elizabeth, a clear underdog, had the look of a team most capable of pulling off an upset.
With just over two minutes to go in the second quarter the Minutemen held host Bridgewater-Raritan to a field goal for its first score and still led the owners of a perfect 10-0 record by four points.
To be ahead that late in the first half was surely a home run for Elizabeth.
However, on first-and-10 from their own 20, the Minutemen turned the ball over on a fumble.
Like good teams do, BR capitalized on the Elizabeth miscue by reaching the end zone for the first time five plays later to take the lead for good.
The Panthers then overcame a blocked punt by Elizabeth that resulted in the Minutemen registering a safety to pull to within one point early in the third quarter.
BR, which was held to minus 15 yards of total offense and no first downs after its first two possessions of the first half, answered by scoring single touchdowns in each of the third and fourth quarters in addition to clamping down Elizabeth’s running game.
“That was huge, the way our kids responded after the blocked punt,” said BR head coach Scott Bray, now in his 10th season at the helm of the Panthers.
It added up to top-seeded BR downing fifth-seeded Elizabeth 23-9 in Friday night’s North 2, Group 5 semifinal played at BR’s John Basilone Memorial Field.
BR improved to 11-0 for the second straight year and is headed back to the North 2, Group 5 final the first weekend in December. After never reaching a state championship game, the Panthers have now made two straight.
This is the ninth time BR qualified for the playoffs, with the Panthers still seeking their first state championship in the playoff era.
Elizabeth concluded its 2016 campaign at 5-6. When looking back on this season for the Minutemen it will be noted that they finished a game under .500, yet they were winning the playoff game that led to the state championship game in their section until there was only 36 seconds remaining in the first half.
The key play in the game was Elizabeth’s turnover after BR pulled to within 7-3 following a 20-yard field goal from solid senior kicker Justin Davidovicz.
The Minutemen were 2:17 away from taking that 7-3 lead – or even a bigger one – into the locker room at intermission.
However, BR junior linebacker Chike Nwankwo had other ideas when he came upon Elizabeth senior quarterback Jahmin Muse.
Nwankwo was able to wrestle the ball away from Muse while Muse was spinning to gain yardage. Senior free safety Ricky Tate was there to recover the fumble for the Panthers, giving them a first down at the Elizabeth 19 with 2:09 to go in the second quarter.
It was the first of three big plays Tate was the integral player on.
“Chike had him (Muse) from behind,” Tate said. “The ball was just there for me to pick up.”
“Chike slid over, did his job and made a great tackle,” Bray said. “It was such a big play, to continue our momentum into the second half.”
Three runs by junior running back David Usewick got the ball to the six. Senior quarterback Nick Attanasio then gained three yards before being stacked up at the three.
BR was pushed back five yards to the eight after being called for illegal procedure. That made it third-and-goal from the eight with 46 seconds remaining before intermission.
On third down, Attanasio scrambled and then rolled left. With a burst of speed, he was just able to sneak into the end zone, stretching the ball slightly pass the pylon for BR’s first of three touchdowns.
Instead of being up by four at the half, Elizabeth was now down by three at 10-7, with BR getting the ball to start the second half.
“Once we took the lead at 10-7 we just had to keep going,” Tate said.
Elizabeth not only survived BR’s first possession of the second half by producing a three-and-out, but the Minutemen were also able to block Davidovicz’s punt. Khamran Rodriguez came through the line and batted it cleanly, with the ball then spinning its way into the end zone.
Davidovicz was able to fall on the ball to prevent Elizabeth from scoring a touchdown. Instead, the Minutemen received two points from the safety to get to within one point at 10-9.
Elizabeth had to punt the ball away after its next two possessions, while BR had to following its next.
Then the Panthers took possession at their own 49 with 2:30 to go in the third. The big play in this drive was a 36-yard pass that Tate went up, caught and brought down vs. double, right-side coverage.
On the next play senior running back Matt Alesandro went in from the one to increase BR’s slim, one-point advantage to a touchdown now.
On BR’s next possession, the game now in the fourth quarter, Usewick found a hole up the middle and raced 41 yards untouched for the final six points of the game. For the first and only time the Panthers were up by two touchdowns and now truly in control with 8:18 to go.
Tate’s third big play was an interception at the BR 14 to halt Elizabeth’s next possession.
The Minutemen, who received a 66-yard touchdown run down the left side by senior Max Michel midway through the first quarter, threatened to score again late in the fourth, but their drive in BR territory and the game ended when Alesandro sacked Muse for a 10-yard loss.
“Muse is a special player and we had to contain him,” Bray said. “No. 4 (Michel) had such a strong game for them on defense the first time we played, he was physically hard to handle.”
“We played our hearts out and fought until the end,” first-year Elizabeth head coach Jamil Jackson told his team after the game.
Elizabeth battled the entire contest and never thought for one minute that it didn’t have what it took to win. Back on Nov. 3 in a Mid-State 38 Conference-crossover game at Elizabeth’s Williams Field, BR held on for a 27-21 triumph.
“I’m proud of our kids and where we are at,” Bray said. “It feels good.
“We’re surprised that we’re 11-0, especially playing the teams we do in our conference, and only a fool would not think that at this stage. The kids bought into our defense and, offensively, have done some nice things.”
NOTES: BR will next play the winner of today’s second N2, G5 semifinal, pitting sixth-seeded Union (5-4) at second-seeded Westfield (9-0). Westfield defeated Union 44-14 in the same seeded and location semifinal stage last year, with the Blue Devils jumping out to a 34-0 lead with still 10 minutes to play in the second quarter.
The teams met most recently for the first time in three years in regular season play back on Oct. 8, also at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium. Westfield was a bit less dominant this time, but still, nonetheless, dominant enough in a 28-13 win that included Union 3-0 at the time and Westfield 4-0.
Should Westfield win, it would set up a second consecutive 11-0 vs. 11-0 second-seeded Westfield vs. top-seeded BR sectional final in N2, G5.
BR has won the Mid-State’s last two Delaware Division championships, while Westfield has captured he last two Watchung Division crowns.
With Westfield holding on to win last year’s final 10-7 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, it was the first state championship in the playoff era for the Blue Devils since 1977.
“We don’t care who we play,” Bray said. “We’re just happy to get another shot and will prepare hard for whoever the team is.”
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 SEMIFINAL AT JOHNS BASILONE MEMORIAL FIELD
5-ELIZABETH (5-6) 07 00 02 00 – 09
1-B-RARITAN (11-0) 00 10 07 06 – 23
ELIZABETH – Max Michel 66 run, Brian Buitrago kick (E 7-0)
4 plays, 72 yards, 2:03 used
B-RARITAN – FG Justin Davidovicz 20 (E 7-3)
14 plays, from own 40 to Elizabeth 4, 7:02 used
B-RARITAN – Nick Attanasio 8 run, Justin Davidovicz kick (BR 10-7)
BR capitalized on an Elizabeth turnover – a fumble recovery by Ricky Tate.
ELIZABETH – Safety, punt blocked by Khamran Rodriguez and then the ball
was fallen on in the end zone by BR’s Justin Davidovicz. (BR 10-9)
B-RARITAN – Matt Alesandro 1 run, Justin Davidovicz kick (BR 17-9)
6 plays, 31 yards, 2:25 used
B-RARITAN – David Usewick 41 run, kick failed (BR 23-9)
4 plays, 56 yards, 2:00 used
2016 ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (5-6)
(H) Hillsborough 27, Elizabeth 0
(H) Elizabeth 27, Watchung Hills 8
(A) Union 21, Elizabeth 7
(H) Elizabeth 23, Linden 10
(A) Elizabeth 26, Hunterdon Central 7
(H) Westfield 13, Elizabeth 7
(A) Elizabeth 46, Plainfield 14
(A) Ridge 26, Elizabeth 14
(H) B-Raritan 27, Elizabeth 21
(A) Elizabeth 42, East Orange Campus 13
(A) Bridgewater-Raritan 23, Elizabeth 9
Head coach: Jamil Jackson,
Section: North 2, Group 5
Conference: Mid-State 38
Division: Watchung 3-3
Points for: 222
Points against: 189