PISCATAWAY, NJ - Although the Piscataway football team entered the state playoffs undefeated, seeded No. 1, and carrying the mantel of, perhaps, New Jersey's best public school team, there was not a chance the Chiefs were about to take Bridgewater-Raritan lightly.
Eighth-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan may have come into the Section 2, Group 5 playoffs with just two victories, but one of those came over Union just last week in a stunning regular-season upset. Oh, and there's also the matter of Bridgewater-Raritan having beaten Piscataway in Piscataway in last year's sectional semifinal.
Piscataway scored on five of its first six possessions, held Bridgewater-Raritan without a first down for the first 22-plus minutes and administered a 42-14 thrashing in the opening round of the playoffs in extremely windy conditions Saturday afternoon.
Piscataway (9-0) will host fourth-seeded Ridge (8-1) next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the sectional semifinal.
It took Piscataway just one play to send Bridgewater-Raritan a resounding message Saturday, and it took the Chiefs just four plays to score. Piscataway got the ball on its own 25-yard line after the opening kickoff. Khristian Hernandez took the ball 18 yards off the right side on an end-around play to open the game, and then senior halfback Juwon Jackson took it from there.
Jackson got the ball on the next three plays, carrying it for 57 yards on those three calls (gains of 19, 10 and 28 yards), the last one a run off left tackle and into the end zone to give the Chiefs the lead 1 minute and 21 seconds into the game.
"We know we've got to attack from the jump," said Jackson, who finished with exactly 100 yards and two TDs on 11 carries (all in the first half). "We can't leave them any opening. We've just gotta close that gate. Against Bridgewater, we still had the anger in our hearts from last year."
Piscataway's second possession--after the first of four consecutive Panther three-and-out series'--started on its own 9, but the Chiefs' combination of imposing strength and size along its line and breathtaking speed out of the backfield and the flanks makes poor field position just a temporary incovenience that is usually quickly remedied. And, in this case, the remedy was senior back Nasir Best's 71-yard run from the Chiefs' 20 to the Panthers' 9-yard line. Best broke free on a run off right tackle, then, as he got downfield, he cut back across the middle and outran the BRHS secondary all the way to the 9.
Three plays later, quarterback Joseph Hatcher was in the end zone on a 1-yard sneak and Piscataway had a 14-0 lead with 6:05 left in the first quarter.
Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins attributed his team's whirlwind start Saturday in part to how sluggishly the Chiefs played for three quarters against Westfield in a regular-season game last week. Although Piscataway won that road game, 26-0, it was still just a 7-0 game with 10 minutes to go.
"That had a huge bearing on how we came out today," said Higgins, coach of a program that hasn't had a losing season in a quarter century. "We were really flat against Westfield. We didn't play well and we committed a lot of self-inflicted mistakes. Today, we wanted to get out to a fast start, be really physical, especially on the edges, and attack. We were very aggressive."
The playoff loss to Bridgewater-Raritan in 2017 was--regardless of how the game against Westfield had gone--probably enough impetus on its own to ensure that Piscataway would not come out "flat" to start this playoff game.
"We had a chip on our shoulder," Higgins said. "We felt that sting from last year's loss, and the kids played angry."
Less than a minute into the second quarter, Hatcher found wideout Lord Jones open running a pattern down the right side of the field and completed a pass to Jones that covered 76 yards for a TD and a 21-0 lead on third-and-12. Robert Konya followed with his third of six extra points.
Five different Piscataway players unleashed gains of more than 20 yartfs in the game. On the Chiefs' next possession, Herandez did the honors with a 46-yard run to the Bridgewater 7, setting up Jackson's 4-yard TD run three plays later with 6:56 left in the half. Best scored on a 2-yard run with 2:21 left to close out a six-play, 65-yard drive.
At that point, Piscataway had scored 35 points, and Bridgewater-Raritan still had not made a single first down. That finally came on a 25-yard pass from Alex Fromberg to Colton Rosseland with 1:25 left in the half. Piscataway outgained Bridgewater, 365 yards to 22 yards in the first half.
Piscataway scored its final TD on a 1-yard run by Hernandez to close out the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Panthers scored on both of their possessions. Brett MacMath scored on a 1-yard run with 5:35 left one play after Kyle Nickel went airborne to make a tough, acrobatic catch of a 13-yard pass from Fromberg just short of the goal line.
Nickel was shaken up on the play, but he looked just fine moments later when he caught a long pass from Nickel down the left sideline and raced all the way to the end zone on a play covering 62 yards with 1:04 left to give Bridgewater-Raritan its second touchdown.
Hernandez finished with 87 yards on 10 carries and Best carried five times for 88 yards. MacMath led Bridgewater-Raritan on the ground with 64 yards on 18 carries.
Bridgewater-Raritan, which appeared in each of the last three sectional championship games (losing to Westfield each time), had a young defense and a new quarterback this season, and then the Panthers were further hampered by an injury to workhorse tailback Anthony Goffe. After missing several games, Goffe returned Saturday, but carried the ball only three times.
Last year, in Bridgewater's 27-6 sectional semifinal victory over Piscataway, Goffe gained 132 yards and scored two TDs on 25 carries.