BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Trailing by a touchdown after being shut out in the first half, New Providence rallied for two scores in the second half, then had to sweat out a Gov. Livingston drive inside the 10-yard line in the final seconds.
Not until Gov. Livingston's final pass from the 7-yard line was broken up as the clock hit :00 were the Pioneers in the clear, as New Providence held on for a thrilling 14-7 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Highlanders for the Mayor's Cup.
Sophomore Charlie Barth rushed for 159 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 24 carries for New Providence, which broke a 7-7 tie on Barth's 3-yard TD run off left tackle with 9:44 left in the game.
Junior halfback Jayson Schmidt rushed for 141 yards and a TD on 27 carries for Gov. Livingston. His 56-yard TD run and Connor Tracy's extra point gave the Highlanders a 7-0 lead with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
New Providence was shut out until senior quarterback Owen Kovacs scored on a 1-yard sneak with 2:59 left in the third quarter and then kicked the extra point for a 7-7 tie. Kovacs, at defensive back, also came up with a huge interception on the New Providence 13-yard line with 2:35 left in the game to short-circuit a GL drive.
"We were in a zone on that play, and I saw the quarterback's eyes and where he was looking, so I just drifted in that direction," Kovacs said of his interception.
That may have appeared to be the Highlanders' last chance, but GL, playing as well as it has all season, held its ground defensively, forced the Pioneers to go three-and-out and got the ball back with 46.5 seconds left on the New Providence 25-yard line.
Gov. Livingston QB Victor Chait completed an 11-yard pass to Peyton Hopeck to the 14. With 7.5 seconds left, Chait connected with Hopeck on a 12-yard pass to the 2. And, though GL was penalized 5 yards on the next play, the Highlanders still came whisker-close to tying the game, as Chait's second-down pass to Schmidt into a strong crosswind was just wide and off the receiver's fingertips at the 4-yard line with 0.6 seconds left.
Gov. Livingston may have come into the game with just one victory this season, and New Providence may have come in with just three losses, but GL has had the recent upper hand in this border war, winning the last five Thanksgiving meetings over the Pioneers before New Providence ended that streak Thursday.
So, while Thanksgiving football may have become a vestige of the past in many parts of New Jersey, it still means plenty to these two communities, and it's no wonder the Pioneers treated Thursday's hard-fought victory as if they'd won a state championship.
"Seniors, you go out winners," New Providence head coach Chet Parlavecchio Jr. told his team. "It was not the prettiest thing, but you showed character and you found a way to win."
It looked, however, like GL might find a way to win. The Highlanders came into this game having scored 63 points in their last two games, and then they moved 95 yards in just six plays to score on their first drive Thursday. Chait had a 25-yard completion to Hopeck two plays before Schmidt took a direct snap and ran 56 yards for a TD. Gov. Livingston did a lot of multiple pre-snap shifting and then gave New Providence early problems with direct snaps to Schmidt.
"In the first half, we weren't reacting on defense, we were just waiting," Kovacs said.
In the second half, New Providence's defense was sparked by lineman Sean Michaels, who came up with a big sack to thwart a GL drive early in the fourth quarter.
"Our defensive line can be hard to deal with," Parlavecchio said. "Sean Michaels just gets better each week. He's an instinctive, explosive tackler."
In addition to Barth's big finish to a spectacular sophomore season, Kovacs rushed for 72 yards on 16 carries. The New Providence QB attempted just one pass all day.
Chait completed nine of 19 passes for 100 yards for Gov. Livingston.