WESTFIELD – The Westfield Blue Devils have not only proven that defense wins championships, but a solid, consistent, better-than-average defense also gets you to a third straight state championship game.
For the ninth time in 10 games Westfield held its opponent to exactly one touchdown and – offensively – the Blue Devils once again scored just enough to prevail.
Top-seeded Westfield, led by a defensive effort sparked by returning senior lineman Jake Vall-Llobera, defeated fifth-seeded Elizabeth 13-6 in Saturday’s North 2, Group 5 semifinal played at Gary Kehler Stadium.
Westfield will face Bridgewater-Raritan for the third straight year in the North 2, Group 5 championship game in two weeks. The previous two games were played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, with Westfield winning 10-7 in 2015 and 15-13 (without scoring in the second half) in 2016.
Westfield improved to 10-0 and increased its state-leading winning streak to 35. The Mid-State 38 Conference’s 3-peat Watchung Division champion Blue Devils will host Plainfield (1-8) on Thanksgiving to wrap its regular season.
Third-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan (9-2) won at second-seeded Piscataway 27-6 in Saturday’s other N2, G5 semifinal. BR’s regular season is complete.
Westfield held Elizabeth to just 70 yards of total offense in the first half – 37 rushing and 33 passing – and led 7-0 at intermission after sophomore running back Tim Alliegro caught a pass over the middle thrown by sophomore quarterback Hank Shapiro that went for a 16-yard touchdown with 1:42 left in the second quarter.
On third-and-14 from the Elizabeth 16, the Minutemen took a chance by blitzing heavily on the play and had three linemen putting heavy pressure on Shapiro. However, Shapiro was just able to get the pass off in time, with Alliegro having a wide open field to sprint into the end zone once he caught the pass.
Westfield called a timeout before the play to discuss its strategy.
“We tried a play like that the first time we played them this year and it was intercepted,” Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno said. “Hank got the pass through to Tim in the opening we hoped to create.”
Elizabeth answered on the scoreboard with its first drive of the second half. Junior quarterback LeShane Taylor completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Tasim Hicks in the right corner of the end zone. Elizabeth failed to kick the extra point and Westfield remained ahead 7-6.
Following an Elizabeth punt to the Westfield 37 with 11:20 to go, Westfield needed only three plays to score its second touchdown and the game’s last. Senior running back Juandre House – who up until that point had carried the ball 12 times for 52 yards – broke free through a big hole on the right side and went untouched 56 yards into the end zone for the game’s final points.
House finished with 108 yards rushing on 13 carries and Alliegro 55 on 17.
Westfield defeated Elizabeth 13-7 at Elizabeth’s Williams Field last year and this year the Blue Devils topped the Minutemen 13-6 at Rutgers. I guess you can say that 13 is not an unlucky number for Westfield.
“We knew they had athletes, crazy players like their quarterback and No. 1 (Naseem Daniels) and No. 7 (Javon Wactor),” Vall-Llobera said.
Daniels carried nine times for 28 yards and Wactor eight times for 32.
“We had to contain them by doing our jobs and keeping our assignments,” Vall-Llobera continued. “We knew that in crunch time No. 3 (Taylor) and No. 1, we had to get bodies on them.”
Sophomore linebacker Will Kessler had a fumble recovery for Westfield in the first half and senior linebacker Drew Ortiz an interception in the second. The Blue Devils did not turn the ball over.
“We have a very close-knit unit,” said Vall-Llobera, who was the only returning defensive lineman. “This team has such a bond.”
Westfield does not have a shutout this year, but the Blue Devils have given up the least amount of points of any Union County team, just 76 in 10 games.
“We make the effort to come out on top in these close games,” Westfield defensive coordinator Ken Miller said. “We knew we had the linebackers and the secondary players back, but guys like Rory McGovern, Noah Levy and Joe San Giacomo have really stepped it up on the line for us.
“Elizabeth really didn’t throw anything at us that we hadn’t seen before. We went to a cover-2 in the second half to give more support and try to take away their slots. We gave up the one touchdown pass, but overall we did a pretty good job.”
Played in an intermittent to sometimes heavy rain, both teams were flagged regularly. In the first half alone there were 15 accepted penalties, eight against Elizabeth and seven against Westfield.
Westfield drove to the Elizabeth 20 with its second possession – a drive that included four Westfield off sides penalties. A roughing-the-passer penalty against Elizabeth aided the Blue Devils march, which ultimately fizzled out at the Elizabeth 26 when Shapiro was sacked for a six-yard loss by Elizabeth junior lineman Andre Hudson.
“There’s no doubt it was a sloppy game, for both teams,” DeSarno said. “I really wouldn’t have expected anything other than the final score we got today based on the scores of the last few games we’ve had against them.”
Westfield junior split end Emmett Smith (No. 80) made an impressive, diving, two-handed catch to the Elizabeth two-yard line at game’s end
Elizabeth, which reached the N2, G5 semifinals for the second straight season and for the fourth time in the past six years, completed its 2017 campaign with a record of 5-6.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 SEMIFINAL AT GARY KEHLER STADIUM
5-Elizabeth (5-6) 00 00 06 00 – 06
1-Westfield (10-0) 00 07 00 06 – 13
Westfield – Tim Alliegro 16 pass from Hank Shapiro, Aidan Boland kick (W 7-0)
8 plays, 52 yards, 4:23 used
Elizabeth – Tasim Hicks 24 pass from LeShane Taylor, kick failed (W 7-6)
3 plays, 38 yards, :59 used
Westfield – Juandre House 56 run, kick failed (W 13-6)
3 plays, 63 yards, 1:14 used