UNION – With the game, the season and a legitimate shot at reaching a state championship on the line it was Union’s offensive line that really came through in the game’s final seven minutes.
Visiting West Orange just produced its first two scores, on drives that took less than two minutes, and now trailed the Farmers by just six as Union took the ball over with 7:05 to go.
Starting at its own 20 Union, behind the running of Diante Wilson, quarterback Andrew Sanborn and Christian Murrell, produced four first downs to move the chains, keep the clock going and take the ball all the way to the West Orange 12.
After the Mountaineers used all of their timeouts to stop the clock, Union took a knee. Then the Farmers took one more. Game over.
Because of the way Union’s offensive line, including senior right tackle Jared Durand, senior right guard Malachi Pierre-Louis, senior center Khari Parker, senior left guard Chiemela Onuegbu and junior left tackle Terell Cannon performed their duties and provided the holes for Union’s running backs and Sanborn to run through, top-seeded Union was able to hold off fourth-seeded West Orange 20-14 in Friday night’s North 2, Group 5 semifinal played at Cooke Memorial Field.
“We keep running the ball and we go hard,” said Pierre-Louis, specifically highlighting Union’s final possession where the Farmers ran off the game’s final 7:05 and in doing so did not allow West Orange to get the ball back. “We really worked hard all season and we fought through this game by the way we kept on running the ball.”
As a result, Union improved to 11-0 for the first time since 1992 and will next take on third-seeded Clifton (7-3) in next Friday’s 7 p.m. North 2, Group 5 final. Clifton ousted second-seeded Ridge 42-35 Friday night in Basking Ridge, coming back from a 20-0 first half deficit.
Union never played eighth-seeded Paterson Kennedy and beat the Knights 35-0 last week. Union never played West Orange. Union has never played Clifton.
“We have to go through North 1 to win North 2,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr., who has now guided the Farmers to a state championship game for the second time in his seven seasons at the helm.
Union will be playing in a state championship game on its own Cooke Memorial Field for the first time since 1992 when the Farmers defeated Randolph 21-7 and repeated as North 2, Group 4 state champions with a second consecutive 11-0 finish.
Union has now advanced to a fourth state championship game, and its first in six years, since it last won a state title in 1993. The Farmers are now four quarters away from capturing their first state championship in 26 years.
“It’s the first time in many years,” Pierre-Louis said. “We have to finish it.”
Union was last crowned a state champion on Saturday, Dec. 4, 1993, close to 9,500 days ago. On that rainy and mud-filled afternoon in Randolph the Farmers came back from a 10-point deficit in the second half to down the host Rams 19-16. The game’s final two scores were produced by Union senior fullback Jacyn McPhail, both of them touchdown runs. Union’s senior quarterback that day was present Morristown head baseball coach Ed Collins. It was Randolph’s first loss at home in eight years.
First-year head coach Darnell Grant’s initial season at West Orange comes to a close at 7-4. The Mountaineers have everything to be proud of for gaining the fourth seed in N2G5, beating defending champion Piscataway at home in the first round and then on the road coming within a score of knocking off undefeated and top-seeded Union in the semis.
“We have a great team,” Grant said. “They work really hard. We hung in there in the first half. I’m proud of the way they played and got it close in the second half. They represented the town of West Orange really well.”
Union’s final drive began with Wilson gaining eight yards and then two more for Union’s initial first down. Wilson finished with 65 yards rushing on 10 carries, including Union’s final score on an eight-yard run with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Union rushed for just under 300 yards.
“We’re a speed team and our advantage is our speed and our quickness,” Grant said. “In that situation (Union’s final possession) when they got in their formation and were running the ball we just couldn’t stop them.”
Union continued with Sanborn completing a two-yard pass to Desmond Igbinosun and then another one for 21 yards to Ahmirr Robinson to put the ball on the West Orange 48 with 3:55 to go.
Murrell then found room up the middle for consecutive gains of six yards. Wilson followed with another eight-yard run that put the ball on the West Orange 28 and forced the Mountaineers to call their second timeout with 1:45 remaining. A 16-yard run by Murrell, who finished with 80 yards rushing on 15 carries, put the ball at the West Orange 12 and with 1:12 left Grant called timeout for the final time.
With a first-and-10 after producing the fourth first down of the drive, Sanborn went to one knee a first time to burn most of the 1:12 remaining and then a second time to eliminate the rest.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Grant said. “I like our team and I liked our chances. We’ll be back.”
When the game got close Union kept its cool, executed its offense, and took care of the ball when it mattered most.
“We thought we were going to finish it, but they came back,” Pierre-Louis said. “This is the playoffs. Nothing is easy. We finished hard.”
Sanborn, who completed 15-of-21 passes for 138 yards and one touchdown and also rushed nine times for 62 yards, was in complete control of Union’s offense as he moved the Farmers down field one final time.
“The last drive I was a little nervous, but I knew we would pull through,” Sanborn said. “We had a great game plan this week from Coach (James) Melody. The guys up front, wow, they did some job.”
“Our offensive line, we leaned on them and it paid off,” Grasso said.
After holding West Orange to a three-and-out, Union went right down the field with its first possession, taking more than six minutes off the clock. Sanborn hit Robinson over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal after Union was pushed back by a penalty and a sack of Sanborn by Adonis May and Jared Massey.
After preventing West Orange from producing a first down on a second straight Mountaineer possession, Union marched down the field again and reached the end zone once more on a 12-yard run by Igbinosun. However, the touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty. Union’s second drive ultimately stalled at the West Orange 29.
On its third and final possession of the first half West Orange reached the Union 21 before an incomplete pass to Jayson Raines in the right corner of the end zone gave the ball back to Union.
Because it deferred after winning the pre-game coin flip Union had the ball first in the second half.
“We knew we had to score there,” Sanborn said. “We wanted to get them down a bit.”
Union marched 50 yards in eight plays, but before the Farmers scored their second touchdown of the night they lined up for a 27-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-eight from the West Orange 10. The kick by senior Ricardo Casas was good, but West Orange was off sides.
Now faced with fourth-and-three at the West Orange five, Grasso decided to go for it. Igbinosun took the handoff up the middle and followed his blockers right into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown run.
Union scored again the next time it had the ball, with Wilson’s touchdown run coming on the 11th play of a 68-yard drive that took 5:29. However, the extra point attempt by Casas was ruled wide left. Union now led 20-0 with just 15 seconds to go before the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Still hanging tough, West Orange junior quarterback Mason Murdock completed three-of-five passes for 58 yards on his team’s second drive of the second half. Then running back Makhi Green found the end zone from six yards out to put West Orange on the scoreboard for the first time and with 6:58 to go.
West Orange lead running back Shaki Carlson carried the ball 27 times for five yards in the first half, but did not get the ball in the second half. He still played and was present in the backfield, but was, “banged up a bit,” according to Grant.
After forcing Union to punt after holding the Farmers to zero first downs on their third possession of the second half, West Orange got the ball back in great field position at its own 46. Six plays later the Mountaineers were celebrating a second score, this one a nine-yard pass by Murdock over the middle to tight end Jon Roberson, which would be his only grab. Bryan Reitberger’s second extra point turned out to be the game’s final point, pulling West Orange to within 20-14.
Murdock completed 14-of-27 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown. Green carried the ball three times for 11 yards and his one score, all in the second half.
NOTES: Both in the first half, Cannon produced a sack of Murdock for a loss of eight yards, while West Orange junior middle linebacker Chris Parsons had a sack of Sanborn for a loss of six.
Both No. 4s almost came up with interceptions in the first half, Igbinosun for Union in the first quarter and Amiyn Hanks for West Orange in the second.
Union still has the record for most state championships won in the playoff era in North 2, Group 4 with all 10, of them produced in just 16 seasons in the section from 1978-1993. The Farmers have now advanced to their second North 2, Group 5 final. Union lost the 2013 N2G5 championship game to Ridge 48-13 at Rutgers.
Union’s only other two times in state championship games since it last captured one in 1993 came in 1996 and 2003, with both held at the old Giants Stadium. In 1996 the Farmers were blanked by Montclair 20-0 and in 2003 they fell to Piscataway 29-7, with the eighth-seeded Chiefs scoring the game’s final 29 points, including the last 22 of them in the fourth quarter.
Clifton has captured only one state championship in the playoff era and that came in 2006 when head coach Ron Anello led the Mustangs to the North 1, Group 4 title with a 9-3 finish, including a season-ending six-game winning streak.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 SEMIFINAL
AT COOKE MEMORIAL FIELD
4-West Orange (7-4) 00 00 00 14 – 14
1-Union (11-0) 07 00 13 00 – 20
Union – Ahmirr Robinson 19 pass from Andrew Sanborn, Ricardo Casas kick
10 plays, 54 yards, 6:28 used
Union – Desmond Igbinosun 5 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 14-0)
8 plays, 50 yards, 3:48 used
Union – Diante Wilson 8 run, kick failed (U 20-0)
11 plays, 68 yards, 5L29 used
West Orange – Makhi Green 6 run, Bryan Reitberger kick (U 20-7)
7 plays, 70 yards, 1:17 used
West Orange – Jon Roberson 9 pass from Mason Murdock, Bryan Reitberger kick
6 plays, 54 yards, 1:49 used
2019 NORTH 2, GROUP 5 PLAYOFFS
SEEDS: 1-Union. 2-Ridge. 3-Clifton. 4-West Orange.
5-Piscataway. 6-Hackensack. 7-Union City. 8-Paterson Kennedy.
Friday, Nov. 8
Union 35, Paterson Kennedy 0 – at Union
West Orange 30, Piscataway 18 – at West Orange
Clifton 26, Hackensack 7 – at Clifton
Ridge 6, Union City 0 – at Ridge
Friday, Nov. 15
Union 20, West Orange 14 – at Union
Clifton 42, Ridge 35 – at Ridge
Friday, Nov. 22
3-Clifton at 1-Union, 7 p.m.