UNION – While the fans of Union Farmers football might not have had the same faith at intermission, the players themselves knew exactly what was at stake.
“We better get our act together in the second half or our season will conclude much sooner than expected,” was one outburst.
It was raining. It was pouring.
The field lights even went out in the fourth quarter after Union found itself trailing for the second time.
Union lost to Elizabeth 28-14 on Sept. 7 – at home.
Union lost to a 1-6 Bridgewater-Raritan team, although one a bit healthier, 21-19 last week – at home.
Union was losing again Friday night at the half, this time by a double-digit margin, to Elizabeth – at home.
Determined to finally play some Farmer football in the second half – which meant getting the running game going and on defense showing more emotion when wrapping up, Union found a way to get past its biggest arch rival.
Fueled by a performance worthy of the best game of his high school career, senior running back Michel Lucien put Union on his back and led the Farmers to next week.
Lucien carried 15 times for 178 yards, including second half touchdown runs of 43, 65 and five yards to lift third-seeded Union past sixth-seeded Elizabeth 28-17 in Friday night’s North 2, Group 5 first round game at Union High School’s Cooke Memorial Field.
Union (8-2) will play at second-seeded Union City (8-1) in next week’s semifinal round, which will be a battle of the only two football schools in New Jersey that start with the letter U.
Union City ousted seventh-seeded Westfield 21-7 at home Friday night.
Union defeated Elizabeth for the seventh time in 10 tries in the playoffs and for the first time in the playoffs in 10 years. Union also defeated Elizabeth in the playoffs after losing to the Minutemen in the regular season for the first time since 1996.
Elizabeth fell to 6-3 with the defeat after going 6-2 in the regular season. The Minutemen were sparked by senior running back Javon Wactor, who finished with 134 yards on 19 carries, including a third quarter touchdown run of 80 yards that gave Elizabeth back the lead.
Producing first half sacks for the Minutemen were Phillip Grimaud, Israel Santana and Jesiah West.
After Elizabeth went all the way down to the Union 25 before a sack by Lucien halted the Minutemen’s initial second half possession, Union reached the end zone for the first time just four plays later.
Lucien gained 19 yards to his own 48 and then quarterback Andrew Sanborn completed a pass of one yard to Jacqu’e Cook. Sanborn then got loose for an eight-yard run to give Union a third-and-one at the Elizabeth 43.
Lucien took the hand off, found room up the middle, and then sprinted his way into the end zone for a 43-yard score.
“We kept the same schemes, we just had to execute,” Lucien said of Union’s second half performance. Lucien was held to just 15 yards on five carries in the first half. In the final two quarters he gained 163 on 10.
Union pinned Elizabeth back to its own 15 on its next possession and then took over at the Elizabeth 35. Sanborn ran option right for 23 yards to get the Farmers to the Elizabeth 12.
“We had to keep our composure,” Sanborn said. “We have a lot of heart and fight. We just had to show it.”
The next hand off went to Cook, who found room on the left side and was just able to sneak into the end zone for a 12-yard TD.
Now, despite the sloppiness of not tackling properly or the appearance of not showing enough sense of urgency, Union found itself in front for the first time at 14-10 with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
The advantage did not last long.
Starting their next drive at their own 20, the Minutemen took the lead back rather quickly. Wactor broke contain in the middle of the line and then sprinted, untouched, 80 yards to his only touchdown.
Now Elizabeth was back on top 17-14 with 1:20 to go in the third.
The score didn’t deter Union one bit. The Farmers knew that on their home field the fourth quarter had to be theirs.
It was, despite something happening totally out of their control.
A drive that already produced three first downs, but saw the Farmers with a third-and-14 at the Elizabeth 44 suddenly took on a surreal look.
At 9:02 p.m. – right before Union was to show what it was going to do on that crucial third down – the lights went out.
The field lights that is.
It was reported in the press box that a transformer went out. The scoreboard lights and the lights in the press box remained on. It was only the field lights that were affected.
“That was shocking,” Lucien said.
The lights came back on for good at 9:20 p.m. and play resumed, with 8:30 to go in the fourth.
Sanborn’s pass on third down was incomplete and then he punted the ball to the Elizabeth 11.
After allowing Wactor to get outside left for a 23-yard gain, Union held Elizabeth without another first down and forced the Minutemen to punt from their own 41.
Union began on its own 42. A holding penalty on the Farmers put the ball back on their own 35.
Lucien took the ensuing handoff and, again, he was gone, breaking tacklers just beyond the line and then sprinting down the right sideline to put Union back in the lead for the second time.
The third of four extra point kicks by Ricardo Casas gave Union the advantage for good at 21-17 with 5:48 remaining.
“I just love handing the ball off to No. 3,” Sanborn said. “I can do it all game long.”
“It felt like the game slowed down,” Lucien said. “I couldn’t do any of it if it wasn’t for my offensive line.”
After holding Elizabeth to a three-and-out, Union’s final drive was a bit more methodical as the Farmers marched 53 yards in nine plays, with Michel going in from five yards out.
“This was big,” Sanborn said. “This is the playoffs and we wanted to show that we belong.”
“They had a good game plan and we had to figure it out,” Lucien said. “We just had to keep doing our best.”
On Elizabeth’s final first half possession, Union junior end Sean Simmons had a sack and then Union had a combined sack by three players on the very next play.
Union junior defensive back Ahmirr Robinson came up with an interception in Union’s end zone on the final play of the first half.
NOTES: Union advanced to the N2, G5 semifinals for the third time in four years and for the fourth time in six and has now won eight games for the first time since 2013, which was the year the Farmers made it to the final.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 QUARTERFINAL AT UNION
6-Elizabeth (6-3) 03 07 07 00 – 17
3-Union (8-2) 00 00 14 14 – 28
Elizabeth – FG Guinove Joanus 30 (E 3-0)
11 plays, from own 40 to Union 13, 4:15 used
Elizabeth – Tasim Hicks 31 pass from Clarence Wilkins,
Guinove Joanus kick (E 10-0)
5 plays, 49 yards, 2:46 used
Union – Michel Lucien 43 run, Ricardo Casas kick (E 10-7)
4 plays, 71 yards, 2:06 used
Union – Jacqu’e Cook 12 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 14-10)
2 plays, 35 yards, :20 used.
Elizabeth – Javon Wactor 80 run, Guinove Joanus kick (E 17-14)
1 play, 80 yards, :16 used
Union – Michel Lucien 65 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 21-17)
2 plays, 58 yards, :18 used
Union – Michel Lucien 5 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 28-17)
9 plays, 53 yards, 3:25 used
ELIZABETH VS. UNION PLAYOFF HISTORY (Union leads 7-3):
2018: Union 28, Elizabeth 17 – North 2, Group 5 quarterfinals at Union
2011: Elizabeth 25, Union 7 – North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals at Elizabeth
2008: Union 15, Elizabeth 7 – North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals at Union
1997: Elizabeth 20, Union 6 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1996: Union 34, Elizabeth 26 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1993: Union 14, Elizabeth 7 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1992: Union 14, Elizabeth 0 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1991: Union 17, Elizabeth 3 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1985: Union 34, Elizabeth 3 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1981: Elizabeth 21, Union 0 – North 2, Group 4 final at Giants Stadium