UNION- After losing the ball on a fumble during its first possession and then turning the ball over again on an interception in the second quarter, Dayton was not exactly playing a crisp brand of football on a crisp Saturday afternoon.
The Bulldogs came out fired up, seeking to build upon last week’s big road win at Belvidere.
Instead, Dayton found itself behind by two scores as time was winding down in the first half.
“We had to keep our heads up,” said junior running back Jerrod Fletcher.
After having some difficulty stopping the running of Pingry senior backs John Dugan and Ryan Toomey, Dayton managed to produce one score before halftime.
Saving its best performance for after intermission, Dayton closed gaps defensively in the final 24 minutes and – behind the outstanding running of Fletcher and Rutgers-bound senior Anthony Cioffi – the Bulldogs went on to post a decisive 34-20 Mid-State 38 Conference-interdivision triumph at Cooke Memorial Field.
Dayton scored two touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters, tying the game at 20-20 with its second TD of the third quarter. The Bulldogs then took the lead for good on Cioffi’s second of three second-half TDs early in the fourth.
“We came out flat in the first half,” Cioffi said. “They had a lot of power, so we had to dial in the speed of the game.”
Sometimes players can take a team on their back and lead it to victory. That’s what Cioffi did Saturday. He finished with a game-high 158 yards rushing on 15 carries, including touchdown runs of three and 53 yards. After scoring the game-winning touchdown, he returned an interception for a TD, his third score of the game clinching Dayton’s third straight victory.
He also completed eight-of-13 passes for 95 yards, one touchdown and one interception and twice stripped Pingry players of the football, while on both occasions coming up with the fumble himself.
Cioffi, with his team ahead by one touchdown, also pinned Pingry deep in its own territory with a well-placed, 34-yard punt on the left side of the field that went out of bounds at the Big Blue seven-yard line.
“From day one for me here, he’s been a gift from God,” first-year Dayton head coach Steve Trivino said.
Dayton improved to 3-3 and remained in the hunt for one of the eight playoff berths in North 2, Group 1. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in the Union Division.
Pingry fell to 1-5 and remains 1-3 in the Hills Division.
Dayton has a chance to qualify in North 2, Group 1 for the third time in four years. The next two playoff qualifying games for the Bulldogs are at South Hunterdon (4-2) next Friday night and then at Roselle Park (4-2) the following Friday night. South Hunterdon had this week off, while Roselle Park has next week off.
“This is the last year for this group of seniors, so we want to make this last year count,” Cioffi said.
At the half, Pingry had 171 total yards with Toomey carrying eight times for 53 and two scores and Dugan 14 times for 49. Senior quarterback Tim Landers completed one of three passes for 58 yards.
Dayton had 176 yards of total offense, with Cioffi carrying eight times for 65 yards and Fletcher six for 23. Cioffi also completed seven-of-12 passes, with senior wide receiver Mike Saladino catching six for 79. Saladino scored Dayton’s first points when caught a pass on the left side of the field at least three steps ahead of coverage for a 34-yard touchdown reception.
Dayton had to do a better job of not turning the ball over in the second half – which it did, not committing a turnover – and containing Dugan and Toomey – which it also did, except for one long TD run by Dugan.
Pingry turned the ball over three times in the second half – Cioffi’s second strip and recovery and interceptions by Cioffi and Fletcher – while Dayton held the Big Blue to just 32 yards rushing on 10 carries, not counting a 68-yard touchdown run by Dugan in the third quarter that put Pingry ahead for the final time at 20-13.
“We played with more fire in the second half,” Fletcher said. “There was more hitting and we kept up with them.
“All they were doing was trapping and tosses and we adjusted to it.”
Dugan’s touchdown run – which accounted for the final six Pingry points – came on a sweep right. Dugan cut back and burst through a hole in the middle and then got free on the left side of the field, outracing one final Dayton defensive back before he reached the end zone.
That score came after Dayton pulled to within one point following a nifty touchdown run by Fletcher.
At the Pingry 24 on second-and-seven, Fletcher broke contain behind the line of scrimmage and then reversed field to the right. He found running room and then was able to put the ball forward and dive into the end zone.
“We run that same kind of play in practice,” Fletcher said. “It can’t be stopped. I saw an opening and just followed my blockers.”
“The hole collaspsed and then he used his athleticism to get outside,” Trivino said.
After Pingry answered with Dugan’s score, Dayton came right back to get even with the Big Blue for the first time. Pingry commited pass interference on a throw from Andrew Lashuk to Cioffi on the drive’s first play. Then Dayton ran the ball the next nine plays, with Cioffi scoring from the three. The nine-play, 71-yard drive took almost five minutes off the clock, with Lashuk tying the game with the second of his four extra points.
Following a Cioffi fair catch at his own 29, Dayton took the lead for good five plays later. On second-and-eight from his own 47, Cioffi found a hole in the middle, raced through it and then sprinted down the right sideline – untouched – and into the end zone for six. Following a Lashuk extra point, Dayton led 27-20 with 9:20 to go.
With 1:05 remaining and Pingry at the Dayton 36 after it passed for a first down, Cioffi came up with another big play. At the right place at the right time, Cioffi – with both hands – grabbed a Landers pass and managed to run 74 yards – untouched again – to the end zone for the game’s final score.
“I read the quarterback’s eyes,” Cioffi said. “I was keying the wide receiver and pulled in front and then just broke off.”
Instead of taking a step backwards and taking a big hit as far as making the playoffs are concerned, Dayton overcame an opening two-touchdown deficit by outscoring Pingry 34-6 the rest of the way.
“We wanted to be physical,” Trivino said. “We went to the power-I in the second half and put Andrew (Lashuk) behind center. He’s done a fine job and he’s our future.
“Beating Belvidere last week gave us confidence for today.”
NOTES: With five minutes to go, Cioffi caught up with Pingry senior wide receiver Andras Deak after he caught a pass over the middle when Landers let go, just avoiding a sack. With his right hand, Cioffi came down hard on the fall and stripped it from Deak and then recovered the fumble, keeping Dayton ahead 27-20.
“They were pumping the ball instead of holding it high and tight,” Cioffi said. “That’s another play we practice a lot.”
Coming up with quarterback sacks for the Bulldogs were Fletcher and senior lineman Connor Goad in the first half – both for four-yard losses – and freshman lineman Saverio Salcfas for a six-yard loss in the second.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-INTERDIVISION GAME
PINGRY (1-5) 0 14 6 0 – 20
DAYTON (3-3) 0 6 14 14 – 34
PINGRY – Ryan Toomey 5 run, Ryan Toomey kick (P 7-0)
6 plays, 37 yards, 2:21 used
PINGRY – Ryan Toomey 1 run, Ryan Toomey kick (P 14-0)
10 plays, 80 yards, 4:24 used
DAYTON – Mike Saladino 34 pass from Anthony Cioffi, kick failed (P 14-6)
3 plays, 1 yards, :56 used
DAYTON – Jerod Fletcher 24 run, Andrew Lashuk kick (P 14-13)
6 plays, 60 yards, 2:57 used
PINGRY – John Dugan 68 run, kick failed (P 20-13)
4 plays, 85 yards, 1:36 used
DAYTON – Anthony Cioffi 3 run, Andrew Lashuk kick (20-20)
9 plays, 71 yards, 4:44 used
DAYTON – Anthony Cioffi 53 run, Andrew Lashuk kick (D 27-20)
5 plays, 71 yards, 2:10 used
DAYTON – Anthony Cioffi 74 INT return, Andrew Lashuk kick (D 34-20)