WESTFIELD – Less than five minutes in two-time defending North 2, Group 5 state champion Westfield already committed three mistakes.
The Blue Devils allowed Linden to return the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown, sophomore quarterback Hank Shapiro had to fall on a bad snap for a 12-yard loss on Westfield’s first play of the year from scrimmage and then two snaps later Westfield’s offense was penalized five yards for delay of game.
That’s not like the Blue Devils at all.
However, what remains a constant with Westfield – what is still very much like the Blue Devils – is that so far the 2017 version of Westfield Blue Devils football leads with defense first, second and third.
Although the Blue Devils did not light up the scoreboard at Gary Kehler Stadium, defensively they gave up zero points once again.
Westfield managed to reach the end zone for the only time with 2:24 left in the third quarter. With a field goal before in the second quarter and a safety afterwards in the fourth the Blue Devils found a way to produce a 12-7 Mid-State 38 Conference-Watchung Division triumph Saturday over visiting Linden.
Westfield 12th-year head coach Jim DeSarno won his 100th game, including 18 with Kinnelon from 2001-2005 and now 82 with Westfield since he became the head coach in 2006.
On its final possession Linden sophomore quarterback Zion Marshall did a fine job of leading the Tigers down the field, with Linden eventually getting as far as the Westfield 13.
With Marshall scrambling on fourth-and-22 from the Westfield 25 with 1:15 remaining, he was brought down by two Westfield defensive standouts, including senior lineman Rory McGovern and senior linebacker Jacob Dayon.
Linden gave Westfield a much better game than last year’s 30-0 Blue Devils triumph in the season-opener for both at Linden.
The Tigers were close and can learn a lot from the loss.
“We played tough, physical football for 48 minutes,” third-year Linden head coach Al Chiola said. “Mental mistakes cost us, specifically holding penalties and they added up.”
Meanwhile for Westfield the winning streaks continue for another week until next Friday night’s big Watchung Division clash at 1-0 Ridge.
Westfield has now won 26 straight overall – Linden was the last team to beat the Blue Devils, which was in the 2014 North 2, Group 5 semifinals – 20 consecutive in the regular season and 15 straight at home.
Westfield’s last regular season and home loss was the same game – a 7-6 setback to Hunterdon Central on Nov. 8, 2014.
While junior Zhyeir Myers scoring on an 85-yard kickoff return on the game’s first play – he ran through a hole in the middle of the field and then outraced Westfield defenders down the left sideline – was an immediate special teams highlight for the Tigers, Linden later made two mistakes on special teams in the first half, with the first one proving costly scoreboard-wise.
“We preached all week that we needed to play well on special teams and then right out of the gate we made a quality special teams play that set the tone early,” Chiola said of the Myers TD run.
Linden junior Schadrac Petit-Homme was a busy special teams player for the Tigers as he punted following Linden’s first seven of nine total possessions. The only times he did not punt were on Linden’s final two drives, the first ending in the safety and the second the game’s final march.
The second time he dropped back to punt – which was in the second quarter – he had to scoop up a low snap. His kick was then blocked – two hands and full body – by Westfield senior linebacker Shea Elliott, giving Westfield a first-and-10 at the Linden 33.
Linden did well to keep Westfield out of the end zone. The Blue Devils settled for a 23-yard field goal successfully kicked by senior Aidan Boland to pull the Blue Devils to within 7-3.
Westfield then kicked off and was able to bounce on the ball – it was first half punter Thomas DeRosa who made the play – in Linden territory to gain possession back immediately in the way of recovering an onsides kick.
“That play and the blocked punt, those plays can’t happen,” Chiola said.
The score remained 7-3 at intermission. In the first half, Linden had 43 total yards on 42 rushing and one passing. Westfield had 61 total yards, including 60 rushing (15 of them on its final two carries) and also just one passing.
Linden senior running back BJ George finished with 24 yards on 13 carries. He had 13 on eight attempts in the first half.
Linden sophomore quarterback Zion Marshall finished with 32 yards on 12 carries. He had 28 on five in the first two quarters.
Westfield’s lead runner up until the middle of the third quarter was senior Juandre House, who finished with 52 yards on 17 carries before coming out with a slight ankle issue. House had 49 yards on 14 carries the first 24 minutes.
Linden kept up its solid defensive game-plan by coming up with a huge stop when Westfield had fourth-and-goal from the Linden 4 with just under seven minutes to go in the third quarter. A pitch to House was mishandled, with Linden senior defensive back Terrell Johnson falling on the ball and Linden taking over on downs.
Westfield’s defense then came up big again and held Linden to the fifth of seven 3-and-outs. Following a 21-yard punt, the Blue Devils got the ball back at the Linden 45 with four minutes to go before the start of the fourth quarter.
Now in at quarterback was senior Jake Vall-Llobera, who had already proven to be quite instrumental in making numerous tackles from his position on the defensive line.
This time he used his 6-4, 221-pound frame to drag tacklers and run through them for gains of 13 and 16 yards on consecutive plays that helped get the ball to the Linden 6. From there sophomore running back Tim Alliegro scored Westfield’s only touchdown on a six-yard run to give the Blue Devils their first lead and put them in front for good.
“Jake missed most of the first two weeks of camp,” DeSarno said. “We had a package ready for him to go in and play quarterback.
“What he did really energized the crowd and pumped up the team and gave it confidence.”
“I love playing offense and still running people over, only with the ball,” Vall-Llobera said. “I know it’s going to take more than one person to bring me down.”
Alliegro finished with 69 yards rushing on eight carries. He gained 48 on 12 in the final 24 minutes.
Vall-Llobera, also a fine baseball catcher, made his presence felt in a big way again early in the fourth quarter when he grabbed a hold of George and tackled him in the end zone for Westfield’s safety, making the score 12-7 with 9:29 to go.
“I saw the block and worked my way around it to get at him,” Vall-Llobera said.
A 40-yard punt to the Linden 6 by sophomore Will Kessler – DeRosa was out with a groin pull – pinned the Tigers deep in their territory, which helped lead to the two points.
“Whether we give up yards or not, everyone on defense is on the same one speed, doing their job,” Vall-Llobera said.
Linden’s final possession began on its own 18 with 4:25 remaining and Linden still with all three of its timeouts. On fourth-and-six from its own 22, Marshall made a fine throw down the right sideline that senior wide receiver Luis Rodriquez went up for and came down with, his two-handed catch vs. single coverage.
“We have a young quarterback who is learning under fire,” Chiola said. “He has plenty of athletic ability.”
That gave the Tigers the ball on the Westfield 34. Following two incomplete passes, Marshall again was able to find a receiver open on the right side, this time George for a 31-yard gain to the Westfield 13.
However, Linden would be whistled for holding penalties the next two plays.
Linden committed 13 penalties total – seven in the first half and six in the second – for 96 yards.
“That’s too many,” Chiola said. “That’s where our youth, our inexperience showed.”
In addition to the game-ending sack produced by McGovern and Dayon, Kessler – from his linebacker position – produced one for a 13-yard loss early in the third quarter.
A testament to the always solid game plans put in by defensive coordinators Anthony Reinoso of Linden and Ken Miller of Westfield – who are state champion DCs the past three years – saw Linden finish with just 130 total yards (43 first half and 87 the second) and Westfield with only 170 (61 first half and 109 the second).
“Westfield’s defense, it seems, just keeps on getting better and better,” Chiola said, although he was also proud of the effort put forth by his own defense.
“You guys were focused and intense for this game, like no other Linden team I ever saw,” Reinoso told the Linden players following the game. “You guys really wanted it. You now have to play that way the whole season.”
Miller praised the play of the Westfield defense coming together as a team once again to pull out another victory and was alsso impressed with the play of first-year starter Kessler, whose brother Owen is now playing at Georgetown.
Westfield has scored only one touchdown its last six quarters now dating back to last December’s North 2, Group 5 state championship game vs. Bridgewater-Raritan at MetLife Stadium.
Yet the winning streaks continue. The biggest reason continues to be better-than-average play defensively.
“The last two years we had a dominant defensive line,” DeSarno said. “Jake is our only lineman back. He, Dayon, (senior Drew) Ortiz and Elliott, our guys back, they all played well. Then so did a new guy like Will Kessler, who stepped up.
“This is a difficult game to play. We try to do it the right way and by doing that it means leaning on the success of our defense. It’s an attitude.”
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION
LINDEN (0-1, 0-1) 07 00 00 00 – 07
WESTFIELD (1-0, 1-0) 00 03 07 02 – 12
Linden – Zhyeir Myers 85 kickoff return, Rafael Martinez kick (L 7-0)
Was game’s opening kickoff.
Westfield – FG Aidan Boland 23 (L 7-3)
8 plays, from Linden 33 to Linden 6, 3:23 used
Possession followed a blocked punt by
Westfield senior linebacker Shea Elliott.
Westfield – Tim Alliegro 6 run, Aidan Boland kick (W 10-7)
5 plays, 45 yards, 1:26 used
Westfield – Safety (W 12-7)
Westfield senior defensive lineman Jake Vall-Llobera
tackled Linden junior running back BJ George
in the end zone.
JIM DeSARNO COACHING RECORD:
AT KINNELON 5 SEASONS (2001-2005)
AT WESTFIELD 11 SEASONS, PLUS 1 GAME (2006-2017)
Winning seasons: 10
Playoff seasons: 9
Playoff record: 9-7
State championship games: 2
State championship games record: 2-0 (2015, 2016)