BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- Chris Serluco lunged in front of the intended receiver and made a game-saving interception at the goal line with 12 seconds left to preserve Ridge's 20-14 victory over Watchung Hills on Friday night.
The victory came at a cost for the Red Devils (6-1), who played without senior fullback/linebacker Christian Sweeney the entire second half after he left with an injury to the lower part of his right leg.
Senior quarterback Brendan Bell rushed for two touchdowns and passed for one for Ridge, which survived a drive that brought Watchung Hills (4-4) from its own 45 with 4:32 left to the Red Devils' 8-yard line. Warriors' QB Chad Martini rolled out to his left and threw a low pass intended for Terryn Stephens at the goal line. Serluco timed his move and stole the pass away from Stephens in front of the end zone just before it hit the ground.
"I was in man coverage and I saw the quarterback rolling my way," said Serluco, a senior cornerback, of the final play. "I just trusted my teachings of the position and jumped the route. It was really close (to hitting the ground). The ball was bobbling around a little bit and I snagged it before it hit the ground."
"I'm so happy for Chris," Ridge head coach Bill Tracy said. "He is such a competitor, and he earned the right to be out there. He is a detailed kid who's valuable to our defense."
"We knew Martini was very good at extending plays," Bell said. "We practiced against that. Serluco saved us there. He played it perfectly."
Serluco, who also recovered a fumble on defense, atoned for a fumble he committed on offense that led to Watchung Hills' second TD. With Ridge leading, 20-7, with 7:33 left and the ball on its own 9 after Serluco's fumble recovery on defense, he lost the ball on a handoff from Bell while playing halfback in Ridge's offense. Watchung Hills recovered the ball at the Ridge 3-yard line with 7:24 left.
Three plays later, Martini reached across the plane of the goal line with his 6-foot-6 frame from inside the 1-yard line and scored a TD. Spencer Ostroff's extra point brought Watchung Hills within six, 20-14, with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter.
After a scoreless first quarter, Ridge took a 7-0 lead with a nine-play, 87-yard drive capped by Bell's 1-yard TD run. But it took Watchung Hills just two plays on its next possession to even things up on Martini's 47-yard bomb down the right sideline to Justin Drews for a TD and Ostroff's PAT with 2:16 left in the half.
Bell, though, engineered the two-minute offense masterfully to get Ridge the lead back before the half. He completed four passes in as many attempts to three different receivers to move the Red Devils 70 yards in six plays. They scored when Bell threw a 17-yard pass over the middle that was tipped by a Watchung Hills defender right at the goal line before it fell into the waiting arms of receiver Cameron Lloyd of Ridge with 29 seconds left. Jake Beckman's PAT gave Ridge a 14-7 lead.
Bell completed 9 of 13 passes for 147 yards and rushed for 102 yards on 10 carries in the game. Sweeney carried the ball five times for 19 yards and caught two passes for 35 yards in the first half before he sat out the second half with the leg injury. Sweeney was on crutches by game's end, and he will be evaluated further this weekend.
"Christian is such a huge part of our offense," Bell said. "In the second half, we said we gotta step it up for him. He means so much to us on offense and on defense. We've got to make plays."
In Ridge's Wing-T, Sweeney's powerful thrusts into the center of the opponents' defensive front help to set up misdirection runs by the other backs, Bell's passes downfield, his screen passes and his own runs. With Sweeney on the sidelines, Bell became the team's de facto fullback in the second half as well as its QB. On several occasions, Bell dropped back to pass, then turned up field himself and lowered his shoulder to administer punishing blows to Warrior defenders and gain extra yards for his team.
"It's funny, Brendan is such a tough runner that we say that it's almost like we have two fullbacks," Tracy said. "And Bell is as good on defense (at safety) as he is on offense. He's tough and courageous and fast. And he is so, so competitive."
Ridge led, 14-7, when the Red Devils embarked on what turned out to be their decisive TD late the third quarter. On the third play of the 55-yard drive, Bell completed a 24-yard pass to a leaping Jack Perry, who was hit hard when he came down at the Watchung Hills 31-yard line, and Watchung was flagged for a personal foul on the play. Two plays later, as the fourth quarter started, Bell rolled out to his right and turned up field, sprinting to the corner of the end zone for a TD and a 20-7 lead.
"We usually run our offense out of the Wing-T," Bell said, "but they kept their linebackers up, so we were running some of our plays out of a spread formation instead. That touchdown came out of a spread set."