NORTH CALDWELL – West Essex took Rahway’s first punch and came right back.
West Essex took Rahway’s second punch and this time came back to take the lead for good.
After visiting Rahway looked like it might be on its way to another road playoff victory, host West Essex had other ideas. One of them was to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and open huge holes for junior running back Will Perez to run through.
Another was for fellow junior Phillip Lutz to make his move outside and outrace everyone to the end zone on the kickoff which followed Rahway’s final points.
Behind the solid running of Perez, the kickoff return for touchdown by Lutz – who also came up with a key interception in the fourth quarter – and a solid defensive effort led by the likes of senior lineman Carmen Cuccuzza, junior lineman Michael Cuozzo, senior lineman Eamon Morrissey and senior defensive back Vincent Scaglia, top-seeded West Essex prevailed over fifth-seeded Rahway 28-14 in Friday night’s North 2, Group 3 semifinal at West Essex High School.
West Essex’s next game will be against third-seeded Voorhees in the North 2, Group 3 final – site, date and kickoff time soon to be determined. Voorhees came back in the second half Friday night to win at second-seeded Parsippany Hills 24-19.
Rahway’s next game will be home vs. Johnson on Thanksgiving morning – Thursday, Nov. 23 at 10:30 a.m.
West Essex won its ninth straight to improve to 10-1.
Rahway had a two-game winning streak snapped and fell to 6-4.
West Essex is in its first final since capturing North 1, Group 2 during present head coach Chris Benacquista’s first season at the helm in 2011.
West Essex was making its fifth straight appearance in a sectional semifinal – all in North 2, Group 3. The Knights have reached a semifinal six of the seven seasons Benacquista has been at the helm.
Last year in the same round and on the same field, West Essex was defeated by Parsippany Hills 37-13.
“The was the worst day of my life,” Perez said. “We used that as motivation.”
Rahway was seeking to advance to its eighth state championship game. The Indians last reached a final in 2008 – North 2, Group 3 – and the last time they won one was in 1984 – also North 2, Group 3.
Perez carried the ball nine times for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
Rahway junior running back Zion Pendleton gained 60 yards on 10 attempts, including one TD.
Rahway wasted no time trying to establish itself, scoring on the game’s first possession. Rahway marched from its own 35, with Pendleton closing the deal with a 33-yard touchdown run.
Pendleton found a big hole at the line, raced through it and never looked back, reaching the end zone untouched to put the Indians in front 6-0.
On its next drive, West Essex did reach the Rahway 32 before Rahway senior defensive end David Hall produced a big sack for a seven-yard loss. Then the Knights could not get a punt off, with Rahway taking over at the 50.
After Rahway punted the ball right back, West Essex evened the score. On the second play of its second drive, Perez found a hole in the middle of the line, burst through it and then outraced everyone to the end zone, good for a 65-yard TD.
On the second play of its fourth possession, Rahway looked pretty good once again. Jakir Robinson hit Dashon Moore with a slant pass over the middle. Moore then found an opening and raced down the left sideline for Rahway’s second and final touchdown, covering 56 yards.
Then Lutz returned the ensuing kickoff, catching the ball at the 10. He ran to about the 30 and stopped and then moved to an opening at left. He then found himself running all the way down the left sideline and into the end zone.
“That kickoff was enormous,” Perez said. “Phillip has great speed. To me, that was the biggest momentum swing.”
“Phil is very athletic and has tremendous speed,” Benacquista said.
Again, West Essex answered a Rahway touchdown with one of its own.
A big, combined tackle of Robinson for a nine-yard loss by Scaglia and Cuccuzza when Rahway was going for it on fourth-and-1 gave the ball back to West Essex at its own 49. Six plays later the Knights reached the end zone for the third and final time in the first half. Scaglia closed the successful march with a four-yard TD run to give West Essex the lead for the first time and for good.
“With our defense on the field I always feel good,” Benacquista said. “Rahway, with its speed, is a team that likes to get to the outside. We had to limit that.”
Rahway was able to move the ball in the second half, but could not reach the end zone again. A Lutz interception thwarted one drive somewhat deep in West Essex territory.
A second touchdown by Perez in the fourth quarter sealed the deal. He took the handoff and was determined not to let anyone even get near him as he bounced off one tackler and sprinted like a freight train for a 47-yard touchdown run.
“We work as a brotherhood here,” Perez said. “We wanted to get the ball to the outside and this week we put a new set in and it worked. The blocks opened things up. Our line did an incredible job.”
Scaglia came up with an interception at the West Essex five-yard line on the game’s final play.
“We preached momentum in practice and the ability to get it back and we were able to do that,” Benacquista said. “No one believed we would be where we are now except for our players and our coaches. We have one more hurdle to clear.”
NORTH 2, GROUP 3 SEMIFINAL AT WEST ESSEX
5-Rahway (6-4) 07 07 00 00 – 14
1-West Essex (10-1) 07 14 00 07 – 28
Rahway – Zion Pendleton 33 run, Jon Cardoza kick (R 7-0)
9 plays, 65 yards, 3:38 used
West Essex – Will Perez 65 run, Patrick Delehanty kick (7-7)
2 plays, 70 yards, :18 used
Rahway – Dashon Moore 56 pass from Jakir Robinson, Jon Cardoza kick (R 14-7)
2 plays, 58 yards, :50 used
West Essex – Phillip Lutz 90 kickoff return, Patrick Delehanty kick (14-14)
West Essex – Vincent Scaglia 4 run, Patrick Delehanty kick (WE 21-14)
6 plays, 51 yards, 2:52 used
West Essex – Will Perez 47 run, Patrick Delehanty kick (WE 28-14)
3 plays, 66 yards, 57 used