UNION, NJ - The Ridge football team lost a quarterback, but may have saved its season Friday night.
In an epic game that ran the gamut of emotions, the Red Devils rallied from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit, staged a goal-line stand in the final seconds, blocked a short field goal attempt as regulation expired, then overcame a six-point overtime deficit to finally beat Union, 37-36.
The twists and turns after halftime included a heartbreaking injury, an inspiring comeback, the goal-line stand for the ages, and then finally the jubilation of Nolan Hughes' decisive extra point to break a 36-36 tie in overtime, setting off a playoff-caliber celebration among the battle-worn Red Devils.
"We never got down," Ridge senior fullback RJ MIlligan said. "We believe in each other, we fight for each other and we love each other on this team."
But that euphoria was tempered by the knowledge that their fallen teammate and leader, senior quarterback Brandon Radice, was on his way to the hospital after being taken from the field in an ambulance after being injured on a sack late in the third quarter.
The sack that knocked Radice out of the game happened in the end zone and resulted in a safety that gave Union a 23-14 lead with 2:46 left in the third quarter. Union also received a free kick after scoring the safety, and turned that posession into a 39-yard touchdown run by Andy Martin, who scored three TDs, including the one that gave the host Farmers a 30-14 lead with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
Ridge (3-4), though, responded to the long injury delay (nearly a half hour) and Union's 16-point lead not with deflated resignation, but rather with steely determination. Devin Stieglitz returned the kickoff 40 yards to the Union 48, junior reserve quarterback Wesley Hudkins guided the team deep into Union territory with a 25-yard pass to Andrew Lusardi, and RJ Milligan smashed through a passel of attempted tackles along the right sideline to finish a 22-yard TD run with 11:09 left in the game. Hudkins' conversion pass to Lusardi brought Ridge within 30-23.
Union (2-4) went three-and-out on its next possession, and the Red Devils embarked on a 13-play, 60-yard drive to score on Nolan Haddad's 5-yard TD run on a counter play with 2:53 left. Ridge needed the two-point conversion for the tie, and got it when Hudkins dropped back to pass, then scrambled into the end zone to tie the game, 30-30.
Union, though, returned the kickoff 50 yards to the Ridge 45 and looked poised to win it when the Farmers drove to the 4-yard line with 51 seconds left. The next carry brought the ball to the 1, but on two consecutive thrusts from inside the 1-yard line, the Ridge defense held and Union faced a fourth down from the 1-inch line with three seconds left.
"Our players got good leverage and stayed low at the goal line," Ridge coach Bill Tracy said. "We practice it. All teams do. But once teams get inside the 5-yard line on you, they are very tough to stop."
The Farmers opted not to try to traverse that last inch with a play from scrimmage, instead attempting a chip shot field goal from 18 yards away.
Ridge's Louie Lafakis blocked the kick. Overtime.
Union QB Andrew Sanborn finished Union's opening possession with a 2-yard run, but the extra-point attempt missed, and Union had a 36-30 lead.
Ridge's OT possession from the 25-yard line couldn't have started worse: Hudkins was sacked for a 7-yard loss, then a procedure penalty set the Red Devils all the way back to the 37, where they faced second-and-22. But Hudkins then made the biggest pass of his high school career, a 29-yard completion over the middle to Haddad to put Ridge on the 8-yard line with a first down.
"Wes is an outstanding lacrosse player, a great athlete and an amazing young man," Tracy said. "He's started on defense all season, and he's become more seasoned at quarterback with the reps and he came through tonight when we needed him."
Stieglitz gained 7 yards to the 1, and Milligan plowed in from there to tie the game, 36-36. Hughes then cleared the crossbar and split the uprights with the game-winning PAT.
"Our kids stayed focused, played hard and showed heart," Tracy said. "We lost close games late in the fourth quarter to Linden and Immaculata, but if you keep playing, one of these games is going to go your way."
NOTES: Ridge lost to Union in double-overtime in the first round of last season's Section 2, Group 5 playoffs. ...Milligan carried 12 times for 64 yards and two TDs, and Stieglitz caught four passes for 74 yards and a TD and carried three times for 23 yards.