WARREN, NJ - It took a little longer than usual for the Ridge football team to exhibit the crisp, disciplined execution that has marked its undefeated season so far.
But, after a flat opening quarter, the Red Devils scored three touchdowns in the last 5:17 of the first half to take a 21-point halftime lead on their way to a 42-14 victory over Watchung Hills on the road Friday night.
Watchung Hills led Ridge, 7-0, after a quarter, and might have been entertaining ideas of a shocking upset on its Senior Night, but the Red Devils dashed those aspirations with a four-play scoring drive and a pair of three-play scoring drives to end the opening half with triple exclamation points and a crate full of momentum.
Junior fullback Christian Sweeney rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries, and senior quarterback Wes Hudkins completed 9 of 14 passes for 139 yards and a TD for Ridge (6-0), which will take a perfect record into a showdown of statewide interest against Phillipsburg at home next Friday night.
Hudkins' impact was not limited to his usual poised and gritty performance at quarterback. The senior also came up with one of the game's biggest defensive plays during the pivotal second quarter. Watchung Hills (0-7) was trailing, 21-7, but was driving deep into Ridge territory when Warriors' QB Chad Martini threw a good looking fourth-down pass in the direction of receiver Terryn Stephens in the right corner of the end zone. As the ball was descending it was looking like a sure TD, until Hudkins, at cornerback, stepped in front of the aerial and swatted it away from the intended receiver with 1:00 to go in the half.
"Our scout team in practice gave us a great look at (Watchung Hills') offense all week long," Hudkins said. "I knew which play was coming there because of that and I was expecting it."
Ridge took over on downs at its own 33 and Hudkins, now back at quarterback, went right to work: A 21-yard gain to Sweeney on a screen pass, a 17-yard sideline completion to Brendan Bell, and a 29-yard run up the middle and into the end zone by Sweeney--a picture perfect two-minute drill that took all of 26 elapsed seconds and gave Ridge a 28-7 lead.
"We practice our two-minute drill every day during the week," Hudkins said. "On the touchdown, we just hit them with Sweeney straight up the gut on a trap play."
Watchung Hills had taken a 7-0 lead with 5:30 left in the first quarter on a 4-yard TD pass from Martini to Stephens that was set up by a tremendous leaping 32-yard reception along the sideline by Justin Downs at the 3-yard line.
Ridge tied it, 7-7, on the first play of the second quarter with Sweeney going 5 yards up the middle and into the end zone behind a block from lineman Ethan Konicek to cap an eight-play, 34-yard drive after Ridge recovered a muffed punt. Jake Beckman kicked the first of his six PAT for the tie.
When defensive end Kevin Fern--who turned in a strong performance for Ridge--recovered a fumbled snap on the Ridge 44 with 6:49 left in a tie game, it ignited the Red Devils' strong finish to the first half, sparking a four-play drive capped by Jack Perry's 23-yard TD run on a counter play off the right side that broke the 7-7 tie with 5:17 left.
"Jack has done a nice job at halfback and has gotten more time there since we lost Nolan Haddad with a broken clavicle," Ridge head coach Bill Tracy said of Perry.
Ridge's defense forced a three-and-out on the next series, and the Red Devils took over on their 42 after a punt with 4:07 left. Sweeney gained 11 yards up the middle and Jake Hoffman gained 5 yards on the next play before Hudkins threw deep and found Cameron Lloyd open on a post pattern for a 42-yard TD with 3:05 left in the second quarter.
Ridge outgained Watchung Hills, 265-93, in the first half, then extended its lead to 35-7 with 9:30 left in the third quarter when Sweeney went in from the 1 after Hudkins had completed consecutive passes to Perry and Bell for 26 and 10 yards, respectively.
"Sweeney has been a great runner for us," Tracy said. "He's rugged, and he's got speed and great quickness. And he is a smart kid."
Ridge's final touchdown came on a 19-yard run by senior halfback Ethan Lew at the end of he third quarter.
RIDGE (6-0) 0 21 21 0 -- 42
WATCHUNG HILLS (0-6) 7 0 0 7 --14