LIVINGSTON, NJ -- The West Orange football team has been slow getting out of the gate the last couple of weeks.
But while the Mountaineers still need to work on being starters, they seem to have mastered the skill of finishing a game.
Warding off several threats by Livingston to cut into its narrow lead, West Orange pulled away with three touchdowns in the last nine minutes of the game to defeat the Lancers, 42-7, Saturday afternoon. Mason Murdock passed for four touchdowns in the win.
Livingston (1-4), which played West Orange much, much tougher than the final score indicates, was just 2 yards away from making it a one-possession game at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The game was scoreless after one quarter, and Livingston trailed by just seven, 14-7, with under eight minutes to go in the third quarter.
"We're young and we're still learning," West Orange head coach Darnell Grant said of his team's recent penchant for slow starts. "Then we make adjustments and get it figured out at halftime."
Livingston trailed, 21-7, but was knocking on the Mountaineers' door as the third quarter ended. An interception by Jack Schreiber gave the Lancers possession with 21 seconds left in the third quarter, and a 43-yard pass and run from quarterback David Cotugno to Brian Russo brought the ball to the Mountaineer 3. Russo carried for a yard to the 2 as the third quarter wound down.
Livingston was right there on the threshold, and then the Lancers were penalized five yards for a false start. Cotugno threw incomplete on the next play, bringing up third-and-goal from the 7. On the next play, Cotugno rolled right, and threw to whom he thought was an open receiver in the right side of the end zone. But junior cornerback Dorian Rawls stepped in front of the intended target, intercepted the ball 3 yards deep in the end zone and returned it all the way to the Livingston 33-yard line.
"It all starts with the defensive line's pressure forcing a bad pass," Rawls said of the interception. "Our safety kept over the top coverage and took away their ability to go deep, so I took the short route. We watched film of them all week, and we recognized the plays they were gonna run by how they lined up."
Rawls' interception led to a 9-yard TD pass from Murdock to tight end Jon Roberson with 8:50 left that extended the West Orange lead to 28-7. It was Roberson's second reception all season.
"And his first catch, against Don Bosco, was actually a mistake," Grant said of Roberson's other reception of 2019. "We talk all the time about being a football family, and all hands on deck, and today it was so great to have other kids make the most of their chance to get involved, like Roberson and (senior running back) Mike Charles, who had some big carries for us."
Rawls, already a defensive hero, caught a 17-yard TD pass from Murdock with 5:07 left in the game. And an interception by safety Adonis May--who had a big game for the Mountaineers in the secondary--set up West Orange's final TD, a 24-yard run by Jeankarlo Hoyas with 1:31 left.
In the early going, both teams attempted to chip away at the other's defense with short passes. West Orange (4-1) broke through with the first TD of the game on a 22-yard pass from Murdock to Amiyn Hanks down the left sideline with 10:34 left in the second quarter. Shaki Carson's 36-yard TD run on a draw play with 5:11 left in the half extended the Mountaineers' lead to 14-0 (Bryan Reitberger was 6-for-6 on extra-point kicks).
Trailing, 14-0, at halftime, Livingston seized the momentum early in the second half when Schreiber recovered a fumble on the second play of the half to give Livingston the ball on the West Orange 25-yard line. Cotugno completed an 18-yard pass to Vincent Napolitano, who made a leaping grab at the 7. Brian Russo carried for 2 yards, then Cotugno threw a TD pass to a diving Luke Nardone in the end zone and Spencer Feldman kicked the PAT to bring the Lancers within seven, 14-7.
Nardone caught 12 passes for 98 yards in the game. Cotugno was 22-for-38 for 227 yards passing, as Livingston moved the ball almost exclusively through the air.
When Livingston's special teams buried West Orange on its own 12 on the ensuing kickoff, the momentum on the home sideline grew tangibly. But the Mountaineers moved the ball out near midfield before Murdock connected with 6-foot-5 wideout Jayson Raines on a slant pattern over the middle, Raines shed the defensive backs nearest him and finished a 54-yard reception for a TD that extended the West Orange lead to 21-7.
Murdock finished with 17 completions in 33 attempts for 206 yards.
Another opportunity Livingston had to cut into the West Orange lead while the game still hung in the balance came late in the third quarter, when Lancer punter Anthony Lopa pinned West Orange at its own 1-yard line. The Mountaineers didn't gain a yard on their next three snaps and were forced to punt from their own end zone, but Livingston muffed the punt and possession returned to West Orange.
A few minutes later, Livingston was back on the West Orange goal line, until Rawls made the interception that turned the game around.
"This defense has a lot of potential," Rawls said. "We just have to calibrate our mistakes and fix them."
"We believe we can teach toughness," Grant said. "We have a real grit about us, and in the red zone, we are tough to crack. This team is resilient."