UNION – Al-Tariq Jones is ready to play at the next level.
“I feel I’m a Division 1 kid, whichever comes my way,” said Jones moments after the Union senior helped lift Union to an emphatic, season-ending 34-12 Thanksgiving Day triumph over longtime holiday rival Linden Thursday morning.
Jones carried 22 times for a game-high 184 yards and three touchdowns in his final game played at Cooke Memorial Field.
His standout offensive performance helped Union finish with a winning record for the first time in three years, the Farmers closing at 6-5.
Linden, which played well down the stretch, had a four-game winning streak snapped and finished 5-5 for the second straight season.
Union leads the series, which began in 1932, by a 37-32-5 count. Game No. 75 will be played a year from now at Linden’s Cooper Field.
Dennis McCarthy of his annual Dennis McCarthy Report ranked Jones as Union County’s No. 3 college-bound senior prospect back in August. McCarthy likes Jones (6-1, 180) on defense, a player with his speed and hands who can stand out more in the secondary.
“I see him as a cornerback who might turn out to be a safety,” McCarthy said. “He has great cover skills and will match up very well.”
Jones, who was a returning starter on both sides of the ball including as a back on defense, scored eight touchdowns in his final three games, leading Union to victories in two of those.
“I have to give it all to my line, who made it very easy for me,” Jones said of the holes he burst through. “It all goes back to summer practices and getting stronger, bigger and faster.”
Union scored the first three times it had the ball against Linden, with two of the three possessions beginning in Linden territory.
The first score saw senior tight end Mike Tverdov jump up and with two hands come down with a 27-yard touchdown pass thrown by senior quarterback Justin Beckett.
Tverdov, in on his usual amount of tackles from his position on the defensive line, also carried the ball twice for 10 yards, bruising his way to five yards on single attempts in each half.
Jones made it a 12-0 game when he scored his first touchdown on a 41-yard sprint.
On the ensuing two-point conversion, senior running back Jeron Whitfield took the handoff, pitched left to wide receiver Hansley Cenescar, who then moved to his right and found Beckett wide open in the right corner of the end zone for a nifty two points.
Union went up by three scores when Beckett rolled right and found Whitfield open for a nine-yard touchdown pass. Senior placekicker Mike Matullo followed with the first of his two extra-point kicks to make the score 21-0, still in the first quarter.
Jones capped a short, three-play drive by scoring from eight yards out in the second quarter. The possession started at the Linden 26 after Union junior linebacker Arthur Pinckney blocked Linden’s punt.
Linden first got on the scoreboard on its very next play from scrimmage. Now in at quarterback for the Tigers was junior Elijah Myers, who connected with tall wide receiver Kyree Rogers (6-4) for a 71-yard touchdown pass. Rogers, a senior, was wide open on the play.
Cenescar did well to block the extra point. He also rushed in to block Linden’s extra point following its final score.
Starting at quarterback for Linden was freshman Zion Marshall, who played well and completed four of five passes in the first half for 39 yards.
Marshall also completed an 80-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Markel McDuffie early in the fourth quarter. McDuffie caught the ball at the Union 40 and then broke free from the Union defender covering him.
Linden’s No. 1 quarterback Joey Krempa – who produced a fine senior season, leading the Tigers to a four straight wins down the stretch – unfortunately had to miss the game because of a family matter.
Although Union was knocked out of the North 2, Group 5 playoffs for a second straight season in the second round by an undefeated Westfield squad, the Farmers were very happy to conclude their 2016 season on a winning note in front of their fans, family and friends.
“The season did not go the way we expected it to, with a ring, but we stayed together and still played our hearts out,” Jones said.
Union finished third in the Mid-State 38 Conference’s final Watchung Division standings at 4-2. Linden came in fifth at 2-4.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-WATCHING DIVISION
LINDEN (5-5, 2-4) 00 06 00 06 – 12
UNION (6-5, 4-2) 21 13 00 00 – 34
UNION – Mike Tverdov 27 pass from Justin Beckett, kick failed (U 6-0)
4 plays, 43 yards, 1:08 used
UNION – Al-Tariq Jones 41 run, Justin Beckett pass from Hansley Cenescar (U 14-0)
UNION – Jeron Whitfield 9 pass from Justin Beckett, Mike Matullo kick
Union capitalized on a turnover – a fumble recovery by DL Peterson Pierre-Louis (No. 72).
UNION – Al-Tariq Jones 8 run, Mike Matullo kick (U 28-0)
3 plays, 26 yards, 1:20 used
Touchdown scored after Union’s Arthur Pinckney blocked a punt.
LINDEN – Kyree Rogers 71 pass from Elijah Myers, kick failed (U 28-6)
1 play, 71 yards, :12 used
UNION – Al-Tariq Jones 9 run, kick failed (snap dropped, pass no good)
5 plays, 62 yards, 2:26 used
LINDEN – Markel McDuffie 80 pass from Zion Marshall, kick failed
5 plays, 89 yards, 2:35 used