BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- The Ridge football team's offensive unit made what almost seemed like a celebrity cameo Friday night.
But while the Red Devils' offense spent much of the game on the sidelines watching Union City control time of possession to a large degree, the Ridge defense bent but never broke, and came up with the big stop every time it really needed to.
Brendan Bell ran 59 yards for the only score of the game and Luke Roberts made three big defensive plays as Ridge defeated Union City, 6-0, in the opening round of the Section 2, Group 5 playoffs in frigid weather.
Ridge will be home for a second-round game against Clifton next Friday night.
Late in the first quarter, Ridge drove from its own 16-yard line to the Union City 29 before Union City's Glaser Arias intercepted a Bell pass in the end zone on fourth down and returned it 22 yards to the 21 (had Glaser just deflected the fourth-down pass, Union City would have gotten possession on the 29 instead of the 21).
From that point, Union City (5-5) had the ball from the 2:15 mark of the first quarter until the 5:13 mark of the second quarter. The Soaring Eagles' possession consumed 15 plays and nearly nine minutes, with tailback Zahir Abdus-Salaam carrying it 10 times for 57 yards on that drive alone. But on third down and 10 from the Ridge 8-yard line, QB Joshua Negron's pass into the end zone appeared on target before Roberts stepped up and swatted it away. Union City then missed a 25-yard field goal attempt.
Ridge (8-1) turned the ball over to Union City two plays later, but on second-and-10 from the Ridge 20, Negron again passed into the end zone, and this time, Roberts, instead of breaking up the pass, picked it off for a touchback.
"Our defense worked all week in reps on defending the fade pass to the end zone," Roberts said. "It was just a matter of trusting my training. I tried to make a play on the ball. We were in a man-to-man. The ball almost slipped out of my hands, but I held on."
Ridge took over on its own 20, Bell ran 13 yards for a first down, then fullback Christian Sweeney took a toss left 8 yards to the 41 before Bell broke the biggest play of the game. On a quarterback keeper, Bell started running off right tackle, then cut sharply across the field to his left and outran the Union City secondary to break the scoreless tie and give Ridge a 6-0 lead with 2:57 left in the half.
"Our offense didn't have the ball for that much of the game, but Brendan had the big run, and we had a couple of other big gainers to change field position," Ridge head coach Bill Tracy said. "It's tough to win a football game when you commit three turnovers like we did tonight, but we had a great week of practice, one of our best all season. I love how these kids try their hardest and play with such heart."
Because Bell's TD was a long-gainer on just the third play of the possession, Union City again got the chance to control the clock, this time penetrating as far as the Ridge 20-yard line before Ridge defensive end Nolan Murphy sacked Negron as time ran out in the first half. Remarkably, Ridge had the ball for just five plays over the final 14:15 of the first half--but managed to keep Union City off the scoreboard.
Union City took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and kept the ball for 11 more plays, moving from its own 35 to the Ridge 17-yard line, but Ridge junior lineman Andrew Taddeo came up with a sack on fourth down and three from the 17 with 5:34 left in the third quarter to deny Union City in the red zone yet again.
"Their running back is a special player," Tracy said. "He's quick and he's got good vision, but on defense, we didn't panic, and we didn't let them have the big play. When it takes 10 or 15 plays to get down the field, it's tough to score that way. Our defense has played well all year."
The Ridge defense has not allowed a TD in its last two games--the only TD Linden scored in Ridge's 14-7 victory last week came on a fumble return. Union City was shut out after scoring 111 points in its last two games. Ridge's offensive stalwarts, Bell and Sweeney, also came up big on defense, with Bell at safety and Sweeney at inside linebacker helping contain Union City and keeping the Soaring Eagles from busting the big one. Sweeney was playing after missing last week with a lower leg injury.
"Christian was just great," Tracy said. "On both defense and offense, he really impacts the team. He is such a great leader for us."
Union City's last chance to tie the game came after recovering a Ridge fumble on its 24 with 2:32 left in the fourth quarter. Negron completed a couple of passes for first downs to get the Soaring Eagles into Ridge territory. On third and eight from the Ridge 29, Negron threw deep for wideout Jarred Montoya in the end zone.
The pass looked right on target. The game looked like it was about to be tied. But there was Luke Roberts again, with his third massive coverage play of the game, leaping to tip the ball away from the receiver.
"It was real close," Roberts said. "No. 9 is an excellent receiver, he runs great patterns, and that pass was right on the money. I just laid out and tried to get a piece of it."
On all three of Roberts' critical end-zone denials on defense, he was playing in man-to-man coverage.
"We were in 'man' most of the night," Roberts said. "Yet, I actually prefer playing zone. I have more confidence in zone coverage."
Union City might find that hard to believe after Friday night.