UNION – Trying to beat Union in a football playoff game at Cooke Memorial Field on the exact 50th anniversary of one of the most infamous days in the history of the United States of America has not worked out for two proud programs now.
On Friday night in a North 2, Group 5 semifinal on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the home team and second-seeded Farmers were sparked on offense by senior running backs Jamauri Bogan and Jabree Robertson and on defense by seniors Robert Skinner and Uchenna Egwuonwu as they led from start to finish in completely dominating third-seeded Piscataway 47-24.
Some 22 years ago, Union came back from a two-touchdown halftime deficit to beat Randolph 24-14 in the 1991 North 2, Group 4 final at Cooke Memorial field, played on Dec. 7, 1991, which was the 50-year anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Union was 0-1 in the playoffs against Randolph entering that game. The Farmers were 0-3 vs. Piscataway in the playoffs entering Friday night’s contest.
Union has now reached a state championship game for the first time since the Farmers were defeated in the 2003 N2, G4 final by Piscataway.
Union is seeking its first state title since capturing N2, G4 for a record 10th time in 1993. It’s been that long.
Sparked by four touchdowns and 158 yards rushing on 27 carries by Bogan – who has now rushed for more than 6,000 yards in his career – and two TDs and 119 yards rushing on 13 carries from Robertson – Union won the first-ever semifinal game that was played on a Friday night at Cooke Memorial Field.
Union also handed Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins his first semifinal defeat. Higgins was previously 8-0 in the semifinal round at the helm of the Chiefs since 2003, including 7-0 in N2, G4 and 1-0 in N2, G5.
Higgins’ playoff record in 11 seasons is now 22-6, including five N2, G4 championships.
In the second-ever N2, G5 final it will be Union vs. top-seeded and 11-0 Ridge, which defeated fifth-seeded Linden 28-14 at home in the section’s other Friday night semifinal.
Ridge has been coached by 1986 UHS graduate Bill Tracy since 2009, with this being the second time Tracy had guided Ridge to a sectional final. Tracy, who played at Union for head coach Lou Rettino, also led Livingston to its only playoff title, which came in North 1, Group 4 in 2008 when the Lancers defeated Hackensack 28-8 in the final. Tracy’s first team at Ridge, the 2009 squad, lost to Phillipsburg 34-7 in that season’s North 2, Group 4 final at Kean University.
So it will be Union going up against an undefeated team coached by a Union graduate. Hmmmmmm, what a championship game this can be?
Against Piscataway, which was a team Union lost to three previous times in the playoffs by a combined score of 97-10, Union scored the first time it had the ball and never trailed.
The Famers advanced the opening kickoff to their own 37 and then marched 63 yards in six plays, with Bogan breaking through a hole in the middle and then sprinting down the left sideline untouched for the game’s first points. Union senior placekicker Lucas Dragnone followed with the first of his five successful point-after kicks. Dragnone also did well to put three kickoffs out of the Piscataway end zone for touchbacks.
“This is our most satisfying win so far,” said Bogan, who last week against Watchung Hills picked up his first playoff victory. “Our line was tremendous. I owe them a box of White Castles.”
After both teams lost the ball on fumbles, Piscataway was held to a field goal, while Union answered with Robertson’s first touchdown, which was a 55-yard run up the middle to put Union ahead 14-3.
The Farmers also scored the next time they had the ball, with Bogan going in from the one for a 21-3 advantage.
Piscataway answered quickly four plays later when Elijah Pierson found a hole and sprinted to a 56-yard touchdown. The Chiefs also ran in the 2-point conversion to pull to within 10 at 21-11.
Realizing that Piscataway was not going to go away, Union came right back with an important score, driving 77 yards in eight plays. In the middle of the drive was a key 23-yard pass from Diego Rios to Lance Lee. At the end was a 29-yard touchdown run by Robertson.
Union led 28-11 at intermission, was in control, but Piscataway was not going to give up or give in.
The Chiefs followed the second half kickoff by driving 83 yards in 10 plays and used five and a half minutes to pull to within 10 again at 28-18. Quarterback Justin Strother threw the first of his two second-half touchdown passes, this time to Oladiran Isijola from 19 yards out.
After Union’s only three-and-out possession followed, Piscataway had a chance to pull to within three points with its next possession. However, on fourth-and-one from its own 44, Skinner and fellow senior defensive player Randall LaGuerre were there to prevent the Piscataway runner from gaining a huge first down.
It was one of several key plays Skinner produced on a night where he stood out defensively.
Here’s a look at those impact efforts:
First quarter: Skinner makes a tackle for a three-yard loss on first down after Piscataway reached the Union 28. Piscataway didn’t score on the drive, which was its first possession.
Second quarter: Skinner comes up with a strip of the Piscataway running back on the first play of the Chiefs’ third possession. Lance Lee recovers the fumble and then Union goes on to score its third touchdown.
Third quarter: On Piscataway’s opening drive Skinner combined with Egwuonwu for a tackle for no gain and then on the next play tackled Piscataway receiver Tyrell Bush after he caught a pass that went for a 13-yard gain.
Later in the third quarter: Skinner is in on a tackle that halts Piscataway on fourth-and-one from its own 44.
“We had to do whatever it took to prevent them from getting the first down there,” Skinner said.
Fourth quarter: Skinner comes up with an interception for the game’s final turnover.
“We knew we had to come out strong, continue to work hard and stay with our game,” Skinner said.
Union went ahead 34-18 early in the fourth quarter when Bogan scored from 18 yards out with 9:10 to go.
Piscataway, now 25-6 in the playoffs since 2002, would not go away and scored again when Strother completed a 28-yard pass over the middle to Juwaan Walker. The ensuing two-point run failed, with Union’s lead staying at 34-24 with 7:02 remaining.
Union then put together another scoring drive, moving the chains once more behind the running of Bogan and Robertson. The drive was aided by two Piscataway personal fouls, including one player being ejected.
Union closed the march with Bogan scoring from 15 yards out for his fourth TD.
Union increased a 41-24 lead with six more points after Wesley Edobi put a vicious hit on the Piscataway ball-carrier, knocking the ball loose. Picking the ball up and then just out-running a Piscataway defender into the left side of the end zone for his first varsity touchdown was Egwuonwu.
“I took a little peak back to see where the guy was,” said Egwuonwu, who last year just played on offense. “I barely got in, but it was great.”
A 47-24 victory was a moment Union had not realized in 10 years. The Farmers are finally going to be playing in another state championship game.
“Words can’t describe how I feel right now,” Egwuonwu said. “I’m crying and this is the first time I ever cried after a football game.”
“This is amazing,” Skinner said. “We want to re-write history.”
“We started out strong which we normally don’t do,” Bogan said. “Our quick start was a blessing. The second half is usually when we play our best.
“This is an amazing feeling and there will be a lot of emotion in two weeks. However, there’s a lot of business that must be taken care of if we are to reach our ultimate goal of being state champions.”
“Our line did a phenomenal job,” Robertson said. “We’ve (the seniors) talked about this game our whole life. We just have to keep playing hard now.”
First-year Union head coach Lou Grasso Jr. knew the challenge of coming out on top against Piscataway was going to be a daunting one that was going to take a full 48-minute performance.
“We had a really good first half against a Piscataway team that is never out of a game,” Grasso said. “It’s never easy against a team like that.”
NOTES: This was the most points Union scored in a playoff game since the Farmers defeated J.P. Stevens 55-20 at home in a 2006 N2, G4 quarterfinal.
Bogan carried 13 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and 14 times for 71 yards and two more scores in the second.
Robertson carried 11 times for 116 yards and both of his touchdowns in the first half and two times for three yards in the second.
“They’re both four-year players and leaders,” Grasso said. “Great players make great plays in big games and both of them did tonight. They work their butts off.”
Skinner was an offensive tackle earlier in the season who still plays on both sides of the ball and is now starring defensively.
“Robert has been consistent all year long,” Grasso said. “He’s been a very positive influence for us.”
Union lost its last two championship games, falling to Montclair 20-0 in the 1996 N2, G4 final and to Piscataway 29-7 in the 2003 N2, G4 title contest. Both of those games were played at the old Giants Stadium.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 SEMIFINAL
AT COOKE MEMORIAL FIELD
3-PISCATAWAY (6-4) 3 8 7 6 – 24
2-UNION (8-2) 7 21 0 19 – 47
UNION – Jamauri Bogan 38 run, Lucas Dragnone kick (U 7-0)
6 plays, 63 yards, 3:45 used
PISCATAWAY – FG Ryan K. 29 (U 7-3)
4 plays, from Union 11 to Union 12, 2:34 used
Piscataway capitalized on a turnover – a fumble recovery.
UNION – Jabree Robertson 55 run, Lucas Dragnone kick (U 14-3)
4 plays, 74 yards, 1:35 used
UNION – Jamauri Bogan 1 run, Lucas Dragnone kick (U 21-3)
5 plays, 13 yards, 2:29 used
Union capitalized on a turnover – a strip by Robert Skinner and fumble recovery by Lance Lee.
PISCATAWAY – Elijah Pierson 56 run, Piscataway run (U 21-11)
4 plays, 80 yards, 2:05 used
UNION – Jabree Robertson 29 run, Lucas Dragnone kick (U 28-11)
8 plays, 77 yards, 4:41 used
PISCATAWAY – Oladiran Isijola 19 pass from Justin Strother, Ryan K. kick (U 28-18)
10 plays, 83 yards, 5:31 used
UNION – Jamauri Bogan 18 run, kick failed (U 34-18)
8 plays, 56 yards, 3:36 used
PISCATAWAY – Juwaan Walker 28 pass from Justin Strother, run failed (U 34-24)
6 plays, 80 yards, 2:08 used
UNION – Jamauri Bogan 15 run, Lucas Dragnone kick (U 41-24)
6 plays, 65 yards, 2:55 used
UNION – Uchenna Egwuonwu 50 fumble recovery, kick failed (U 47-21)