HILLSIDE – Were the host Comets concerned at all when they entered their locker room at halftime with no first half points at all for the initial time this season?
Four first half possessions produced just four first downs, while lead running backs James Louis and Jahon Moore were limited to only 18 and 14 yards respectively on a combined eight carries.
“We knew we had to play with an extra edge on our shoulders when the second half began,” Hillside senior quarterback Nahree Biggins said. “We just had a week off.”
“We were rusty,” Hillside head coach Barris Grant said. “We just had our first bye week in three years. Our practices were good, but it’s different when you don’t play that weekend.”
Hillside produced a second consecutive 8-0 regular season before getting last week off. The Comets were then heavy favorites to top a 4-4 Cinnaminson team at home to advance in their first playoff journey through South Jersey, Group 2.
So when Cinnaminson was ahead by two points as the third quarter commenced, it was only the second time this year that Hillside trailed at the half, the Comets were hoping for a quick turnaround. Hillside received the second half kickoff.
“The first time we had the ball in the third quarter was important,” Biggins said.
What followed was Hillside showing every single fan in attendance that it might very well be the best quick-scoring, big-play team in the state of New Jersey.
Third-seeded Hillside scored its first two touchdowns in the third quarter and added three more in the fourth to pull away to a 36-2 triumph over sixth-seeded Cinnaminson in Saturday’s first-round South Jersey, Group 2 playoff clash at John Zappulla Field.
Hillside’s first three touchdowns came on runs of 69, 67 and 62 yards. The four Comet offensive scores in the second half came on drives of four, two, three and two plays.
When looking back, Hillside amazingly trailed 2-0 at intermission after the Comets had a second quarter punt blocked by Cinnaminson standout senior lineman Cam Horsley, with the ball bouncing through the back of the end zone. A 15-yard penalty on the Comets for a late hit the play before pushed Hillside back half the distance to its own 13.
The only other time Hillside trailed at the half this year was when the Comets were behind to host Delaware Valley 7-6 before coming back to beat the Terriers 20-14.
Hillside (9-0) will next play at second-seeded and defending champion Haddonfield (7-2) Friday night, Nov. 15, at 7 with a trip to the SJG2 championship game at stake. Cinnaminson’s season ended at 4-5.
Haddonfield was the only team to beat Hillside last year and did so by the score of 17-7 in the first Central Jersey vs. South Jersey Bowl Game at MetLife Stadium between those two Group 2 sectional state champions.
Hillside, which finished 11-1 a year ago, has now won 24 of its last 25 games dating back to 2017.
After Cinnaminson chose to squib the second half kickoff and also recovered the ball to the surprise of some, Hillside held the Pirates to just one first down on a fourth-down pass completion. Cinnaminson went for it again on fourth down and eight yards to go from the Hillside 22 when a pass over the middle was dropped.
Four plays later Biggins, on fourth-and-one from the Hillside 31, altered the events of the afternoon like only he is most capable of.
Biggins first took a half step back and then found a hole in the middle of the line to burst through. He then found a seam and proceeded to sprint down the right sideline, untouched, for a 69-yard touchdown run that put the Comets in the lead for good.
With 5:20 left in the third quarter Hillside was rejuvenated and on its way. The Comets finally managed to run the ball away from Horsley, the Boston College recruit dominating the game at the line of scrimmage up until that point.
Comet speed was now making its presence felt and, as a result, the game’s momentum was changing in favor of the home team.
“We tried to avoid him (Horsley) and run away from him,” Biggins said. “We did run the ball up the middle and in the second half we just had to execute more. We stayed with our game plan.”
The next time Hillside had the ball, after a sack by Hillside senior captain Tyler Gardner of Cinnaminson quarterback Shawn Ruffin, it was junior Fatir Bell’s turn to put the moves on.
On second-and-12 from the Cinnaminson 33, Bell took the handoff to the middle of the line, first bobbled the ball and then raced through a hole and down the left sideline for a 67-yard touchdown run. Bell also caught the ensuing two-point pass from Biggins to make the score 15-2.
“Once we get in the end zone we’re like a train, no one can stop us,” Biggins said. “That’s how our team works.”
Now early in the fourth quarter it was senior Jonathan Delva’s turn. On the third play of Hillside’s third second half possession, Delva found a hole on the left side and ran down the sideline to another untouched Hillside touchdown.
In a 13-minute span Hillside went from being down 2-0, allowing Cinnaminson to recover the second half kickoff, wondering a bit whether or not it was ever going to get into the end zone to now leading the game by three touchdowns at 23-2 with still most of the fourth quarter to go.
Hillside found its mojo fast in the second half, churning out touchdown runs of 69, 67 and 62 yards just like that.
“This is the playoffs and nobody wants to go home,” Grant said. “Biggins is electrifying. This is his sixth game at quarterback for us now.”
Grant explained trying to get Louis and Moore between the tackles. Much easier said than what Hillside was ultimately able to do.
“That 55 (Horsley) is a monster,” Grant said. “We have a talented group. This group is a little different from last year.
“Last year we had the big recruits like (Brian) Ugwu and (Boris) Nicolas-Paul. This crew we have this year, anybody is capable of scoring.”
Just three plays after Hillside went up by three scores, junior middle linebacker Joseph Obeng was in the right place at the right time in picking off a Ruffin pass and running it in from 25 yards out.
Another quick, this one on the second play of the drive, score was produced when Biggins connected with senior DePaul transfer James Westry in the left corner of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown pass.
Hillside’s offense scored touchdowns the first four times it had the ball in the second half and on the fifth time took a knee.
Hillside’s defense was also solid at the line of scrimmage, keeping Cinnaminson junior running back Amauri Marshall in check the entire game. Marshall could muster only six yards rushing on 13 carries.
SOUTH JERSEY, GROUP 2 FIRST ROUND
AT HILLSIDE’S JOHN ZAPPULLA FIELD
6-Cinnaminson (4-5) 00 02 00 00 – 02
3-Hillside (9-0) 00 00 15 21 – 36
Cinnaminson – Safety, punt blocked by Cam Horsley that went through end zone
Hillside – Nahree Biggins 69 run, Jayson Rodrigues kick (H 7-2)
4 plays, 78 yards, 2:14 used
Hillside – Fatir Bell 67 run, Fatir Bell pass from Nahree Biggins (H 15-2)
2 plays, 65 yards, :51 used
Hillside – Jonathan Delva 62 run, Nazeer Elias pass from Nahree Biggins (H 23-2)
3 plays, 73 yards, 1:34 used
Hillside – Joseph Obeng 25 interception return, Jayson Rodrigues kick (H 30-2)
Hillside – James Westry 23 pass from Nahree Biggins, kick failed (H 36-2)
2 plays, 48 yards, :36 used
2019 SOUTH JERSEY, GROUP 2 PLAYOFFS
Friday, Nov. 8
West Deptford 49, Sterling 0 – at West Deptford
Haddonfield 28, Shore 14 – at Haddonfield
Saturday, Nov. 9
Hillside 36, Cinnaminson 2 – at Hillside
Delran 29, Manasquan 14 – at Manasquan
Friday, Nov. 15
5-Delran at 1-West Deptford, 6 p.m.
3-Hillside at 2-Haddonfield, 7 p.m.