BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- For the last few weeks, the Ridge football team registered big defensive plays every time it needed one in the second half of close games.
Friday night, Ridge wasn't able to come up with that big defensive stop.
Clifton rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit, gained nearly 500 yards of total offense and did not commit a single penalty en route to defeating Ridge, 42-35, in the semifinal round of the Section 2, Group 5 playoffs at Lee Field.
Slippery senior halfback Christian Boneparte scored his fifth touchdown of the game, a 7-yard run with 3:48 left, to give Clifton (7-3) the lead after the game had been tied, 35-35. Virtually never going down on the first hit, Boneparte rushed for 161 yards and four TDs on 34 carries and also caught a TD pass.
The 5-foot-8, 178-pound runner frustrated Ridge with his repeated ability to spin, dart and plug away for second-effort yardage. Three times on Clifton's game-winning drive, Boneparte converted fourth downs into first downs with short runs on direct-snap plays.
And speaking of "second effort," Clifton came up with a remarkable second effort at a point in the game when Ridge (8-2) appeared poised to blast the visiting team all the way back to Passaic County before halftime. The Red Devils looked like the very best version of their talented selves in racing to a 20-0 lead with 10:45 left in the second quarter.
On its second possession of the game, Ridge went 87 yards in nine plays to score on Christian Sweeney's 2-yard TD run with 5:22 left in the first quarter. Senior quarterback Brendan Bell completed three consecutive passes (to Nolan Murphy, Jack Perry and Sweeney) for 66 yards immediately preceding Sweeney's TD and Jake Beckman's extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Bell, who completed 9 of 13 passes for 225 yards and two TDs (and gained 39 yards and a TD on eight carries), struck quickly on Ridge's next possession. Ridge's Jared Ziegler, a defensive end dropping back into pass coverage, intercepted a Clifton pass and returned it 14 yards to the Clifton 41-yard line. On the next play, Bell found Cameron Lloyd on a fly pattern down the left sideline for a 41-yard TD pass and a 13-0 lead with 2:10 to go in the first quarter.
Clifton went three-and-out for the second time on its first three possessions, giving little indication of the offensive explosion it would later uncork, and Ridge needed just five plays to move 84 yards to another score. Bell's 63-yard deep ball to Perry set the Red Devils up on the Clifton 1. Bell sneaked in from there and, after Beckman's PAT, Ridge had a 20-0 lead just a minute and 15 seconds into the second quarter, and the Red Devils' defense had extended their shutout streak to nine quarters.
After that, Clifton never turned the ball over, punted or committed a single penalty the rest of the game. In fact, the Mustangs, from the 10:15 mark of the second quarter to the 8:42 mark of the third, scored four TDs and outgained Ridge, 229 yards to 4, in turning a 20-0 deficit into a 28-20 lead. And they did this with a sophomore quarterback, Kyle Vellis, who shook off that first-quarter interception to throw two TD passes and complete several key throws that enabled Clifton to keep the chains moving.
Vellis' 24-yard TD pass to Caleb Boneparte on a fade to the left side of the end zone with 22 seconds left in the second quarter tied the game, 20-20, and Cristian Estves' extra point gave Clifton the lead, 21-20, going into the half. But the TD pass, which the receiver did not appear to have full control of until he had gone across the sideline, could have been waved off as incomplete, but was not.
"We had a lot of momentum, but after we had the 20-0 lead, I didn't think we relaxed in any way," Ridge head coach Bill Tracy said. "Offensively, they mixed their plays very well, and they have very good players. No. 3 (Christian Boneparte) is a really good back. He runs with great balance and vision, and he had us off balance."
But Clifton, unstoppable on offense, had just as much trouble stopping Ridge's versatile offense. The Red Devils came back from deficits of 28-20 and 35-28 to forge two more ties. Sweeney started Ridge's next drive with a scintillating 32-yard broken-field cutback run to the Clifton 30. Eight plays later, Bell threw a 4-yard TD pass to Perry and then a two-point conversion pass to Lloyd to tie the game, 28-28, with 4:30 left in the third.
After Clifton regained a 35-28 lead, Ridge charged back again, going 64 yards in just six plays to tie the game, 35-35, on a 1-yard TD run by Bell and a Beckman PAT with 8:44 left in the game. Bell's 36-yard pass to Murphy on the second play of the drive on a waggle rollout set Ridge up at the Clifton 19-yard line on that drive.
Rather incredibly, Clifton compiled a total of 497 yards from scrimmage despite having only two gains of more than 20 yards on a single play the entire game. The Mustangs just continually and persistently chipped away.
Sweeney rushed for 83 yards and a TD on 14 carries and caught two passes for 27 yards for Ridge.
After the game, Bell, one of the team's co-captains, stood in the center of the entire group of his tearful Red Devils' teammates and delivered a final, heartfelt address. Tracy, a coach who values character and team chemistry even more than victories, embraced each player one by one in a procession.
"God has taken care of us with a great group of guys--and a girl--this year," Tracy said. "This group gave us everything they had, every single day. A coach could not be prouder than I am of them."
CLIFTON (7-3) 0 21 7 14 -- 42
RIDGE (8-2) 13 7 8 7 -- 35