HILLSIDE – The visiting and favored Indians scored the first four times they had the ball, capitalizing on turnovers their first two drives.
The home team Comets could have quit after being down by four touchdowns in the second quarter, but they did not. Hillside hung in there, played much better defensively the rest of the way and ended up scoring the game’s final two touchdowns.
For Rahway, it was a good football opener, with the Indians hoping it’s the first step toward a state championship.
In the Mid-State 38 Conference-Mountain Division season-opener for both at Wood Field Stadium’s grass field, Rahway was dominant Friday afternoon in posting a 27-13 victory.
Rahway has now defeated Hillside five years in a row.
Here’s a look at Rahway’s 5-game winning streak over Hillside and Hillside’s last win over Rahway:
2013: Rahway 27, Hillside 13 – at Hillside
2012: Rahway 32, Hillside 6 – at Rahway
2011: Rahway 53, Hillside 12 – at Rahway
2010: Rahway 27, Hillside 20 – at Hillside
2009: Rahway 22, Hillside 0 – at Rahway
2008: Hillside 18, Rahway 12 – at Hillside
The Indians (1-0, 1-0) will host Delaware Valley next Saturday, while Hillside (0-1, 0-1) will next play at Scotch Plains on the same day.
Rahway was led by senior running back Gabril Gross, who paced all rushers with 139 yards on 19 carries, including three touchdowns.
“We have a very good line,” said Gross, who scored twice in the first quarter and once in the second. “Our coaches tell them to hit the sleds hard, so they’ll be ready.”
Hillside senior quarterback Joey Straile completed a pass good for 12 yards on the game’s second play from scrimmage, but the ball came loose, with Rahway senior defensive back Jeffery Bost recovering at the Hillside 46.
Two plays later from his quarterback position, Bost completed a 40-yard pass to senior split end Thorne Roberts, who caught the ball on the left side at the 19 and ran to the six.
Gross ran right from the six on second down and scored the game’s first points to put Rahway in front for good. Junior placekicker Tyler West successfully followed with his only point after attempt to make it 7-0.
Freshman placekicker Franklin Zeyala (No. 99, but not on the roster) was 2-for-3 on point after kicks the rest of the way.
Rahway senior cornerback Jeffery Reyes intercepted a second down pass on Hillside’s next drive, giving the Indians the ball back quickly on their own 34.
Gross carried three times for 28 yards on the drive, with it ending on a four-yard touchdown run produced by West on first-and-goal.
Rahway held Hillside to without a first down again on its third possession and then took over on its own 49.
The 5-5, 160-pound Gross took the handoff on first down, found daylight up the middle through holes his line provided and then shed tacklers on his way to a 51-yard touchdown jaunt.
Rahway led 20-0 with still 3:34 left in the first quarter.
“You know, he has that low center of gravity that allows him to break tackles,” said 10th-year Rahway head coach Gary Mobley. “He’s our featured back.
“He ran for 1,000 yards last year and we expect 1,500 this year.”
Because of the success Gross had on the ground, Rahway did not throw the ball as much as it might have. Bost completed three of five passes in the first half to three different receivers – Roberts, senior Daejon Weeks-Landy and West – for 54 yards.
Gross gained 103 yards on 10 carries in the first 24 minutes.
“We wanted to come out real intense,” said Bost, who is in his second season as Rahway’s starting signal-caller. “Our game plan was to pound the ball and run it down their throats.
“We would have thrown the ball more if the game was closer. Our defense was also fired up.”
With 9:39 left in the first half, Rahway struck again for its final points. Gross capped a six-play, 34-yard drive by scoring from three yards out. Senior Donte Raymond gained 10 yards to give Rahway a first-and-goal at the Hillside seven.
Following that score, Hillside immediately managed to thwart Rahway’s momentum and build some of its own. Comet senior kick returner Josh Wilkins caught the ensuing kickoff at his own five and then turned on the jets.
Wilkins quickly maneuvered his way through a group of bodies in the middle of the field, banging off several of them, and then toward the left side outraced the remaining Rahway players attempting to tackle him.
His 95-yard kickoff return and the point after by Jeff Cosmeus made it 27-7 with 9:22 left in the second quarter.
“You could tell the fight in the team picked up right there,” said Hillside second-year head coach Kendall Ashford. “Josh has had a couple of gems. He was a big player for us on special teams last year, too.”
Hillside came up with an interception with just over a minute left before halftime when No. 3 first tipped the ball and then came down with it, giving the Comets a first down at the Rahway 25. The drive stalled at the Rahway 28 when time in the first half expired.
Hillside put together a 16-play, 87-yard scoring drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. Early in the drive, Wilkins had a 17-yard run and then he capped the march by scoring from seven yards out with 5:19 remaining.
Hillside lost one fumble in each half and committed three turnovers, two of them immediately proving costly.
“We need to correct some small things,” Ashford said.
Another positive for Hillside was the outstanding play on defense by senior linebacker Ishmael Jones, who punished Rahway offensive players all game long with his aggressive style of play.
“Ishmael is one of our vocal leaders,” Ashford said.
NOTES: Straile, a three-year starter, completed five-of-eight passes for 15 yards and one interception in the first half and then hit on five-of-seven throws for 24 yards in the second.
One of Hillside’s sophomores on the varsity roster is Jason Merise, a running back and cornerback. His older brother Jesse, a 2010 Hillside graduate who played for head coach John Power, is now playing at Penn State.
Jesse Merise, No. 13, is a junior academically and sophomore eligibility-wise, who plays cornerback at 5-9, 180.
There is even a Jesse James on the roster, if you can believe that, with James – a 6-7, 257 pound tight end – hailing from Glassport, Pa.
Power is now also associated with Penn State football, with his job position with the Nittany Lions being that of assistant recruiting coordinator.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-MOUNTAIN DIVISION GAME
RAHWAY (1-0, 1-0) 20 7 0 0 – 27
HILLSIDE (0-1, 0-1) 0 7 0 6 – 13
RAHWAY – Gabril Gross 6 run, Tyler West kick (R 7-0)
4 plays, 46 yards, 2:00 used
RAHWAY – Tyler West 4 run, Franklin Zeyala kick (R 14-0)
8 plays, 66 yards, 3:26 used
RAHWAY – Gabril Gross 51 run, kick failed (R 20-0)
1 play, 51 yards, :13 used
RAHWAY – Gabril Gross 3 run, Franklin Zeyala kick (R 27-0)
6 plays, 34 yards, 2:54 used
HILLSIDE – Josh Wilkins 95 kickoff return, Jeff Cosmeus kick (R 27-7)
HILLSIDE – Josh Wilkins 7 run, run failed (R 27-13)
16 plays, 87 yards, 7:39 used