PLAINFIELD — One of the key aspects in Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s football resurgence this fall has been the Raiders’ improvement and ability to finish down the stretch in close games.
Situations in which the Raiders often folded in years past and even at the beginning of this season have turned into defining moments of victory. On Saturday afternoon in Plainfield, the Raiders were again faced with pressure late in the game, and again rose to the occasion.
After scoring three touchdowns in the first half to jump ahead, Scotch Plains-Fanwood slowly started to see neighboring rival Plainfield inch closer and gain the momentum advantage by halftime. But the Raiders were able to come up with huge stops defensively in the second half, which was enough to hold off their opponents' rally as Scotch Plains-Fanwood got back to .500 on the season with a 21-20 nail-bitting victory at Hub-Stine Field.
Hayden Widder, Shawn Martin, and Anthony Robinson each had a touchdown for the Raiders, who scored all of their points in the first half. Plainfield had two touchdowns in that opening half, but on both occasions, the Raiders stopped the Cardinals’ two-point conversion attempts to keep it a two-possession game entering the second half. Because of that, the Raiders were able to remain ahead for the remainder, despite a Plainfield TD and successful two-point conversion with 1:51 left in the game.
"We’ve learned how to finish games and leave everything on the field," said junior Kenny Yeager, who helped lead the defense through big stops in the second half. "At the beginning of the season, finishing was our problem. In the first game, we couldn’t finish and put the game away, but as the season progressed, everyone deleted a better attitude and became more mature as players."
The list of achievements and milestones from Saturday’s victory is impressive for the Raiders, who now have a chance to finish with a winning record heading into the final game of the regular season against Colonia next Saturday. For one, after defeating JFK Iselin last week, the Raiders have won consecutive games for the first time since 2012. Saturday’s win is the program’s first over a Group 5 school since defeating Ridge in 2014. Now at 4-4, it is their best record through eight games in a season since 2012. The Raiders have now also completed the season undefeated on the road (4-0) for the first time since 2007.
And, while an extreme long shot, there is now a slim possibility that the Raiders can sneak into the state playoffs in their North Jersey, Group 4 section.
"I’m tired of winning like that -- but I love winning," said Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Austin Holman. "Group 1 or Group 5, whoever it is, for us to be winning games and get back to .500 is outstanding."
Clinging to a 21-12 advantage at halftime, Scotch Plains-Fanwood was seemingly on the short end of the momentum battle, as Plainfield had just put in a touchdown with 29 seconds left in the first half. However, any momentum that Plainfield gained was stopped immediately after the break.
The Raiders’ defense came up huge with stops on the Cardinals’ first three drives of the half. The first two Plainfield drives resulted in the Cardinals punting the ball away after the Raiders forced 4th-and-Long situations, and the third was a fumble recovery by Robinson at the Raider 28 with 6:30 left in the game.
"On defense, it’s all about momentum and making the big plays," Yeager said. "When you make the big plays, the whole sideline erupts, the team gets re-juiced, and everyone wants to play and go back at it again."
Unfortunately for Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Robinson's fumble recovery gave them a possession that they'd cough up on the first play, which resulted in a Plainfield interception at the Cardinal 16. Plainfield then drove all the way downfield with explosive plays and scored a touchdown with 1:51 left in the game, then converted the two-point attempt to cut the Raiders' lead to 21-20.
However, despite Plainfield having and using all three timeouts left, the Raiders sealed the deal on the next drive. A 12-yard Martin run with just over a minute left gave a new set of downs and iced the game.
At least offensively, the afternoon could not have gotten off to a better start for the Raiders, who scored on three of their first four drives of the game.
The Raiders received the ball to begin the first quarter and quickly marched 55 yards down field to score on 11 plays in 5:14, jumping ahead when Widder ran three yards into the end zone, which made it 7-0 after the PAT. The drive was completed entirely on the ground, as the Raiders ran the ball on every play, including a breakaway 20-yarder by Robinson.
"The first possession, we ran the ball every play and pounded it down their throats, and we just continued to do that," Widder said. "I really think our O-Line put work in today and they really pounded them into the ground."
That lead was extended early in the second quarter, when the Raiders needed just three plays to cover 54 yards and jump ahead, 14-0. On a drive that started at the Raider 46, a 36-yard flea flicker pass from Jake Hahn to Christian Piesch down the right sideline got the Raiders into the redzone, and Robinson would run 16 yards to the house on the very next play.
"He came in there — we have a special play for Jake to throw it — and he threw a great pass; it set up our second score," Holman said. "When Anthony Robinson got in the end zone, we were kind of making fun of him the last couple weeks, but he got it done. He had a really great day."
Plainfield would add a touchdown on its ensuing drive, needing just five plays to score from 66 yards out, but the Raiders were able to stop the two-point attempt and keep the score at 14-6. The Raiders then wasted little time extending the lead again.
After receiving the kickoff following the Cardinals’ score, Scotch Plains-Fanwood soon found itself in a 4th-and-8 situation on the Plainfield 32, but was able to convert nonetheless. The Raiders elected to go for it, and Widder’s short screen pass to Martin turned into a touchdown run down the right sideline to make it 21-12, following Akin Akinwunmi’s PAT.
Plainfield responded again on its next drive though. After taking advantage of a costly Raider personal foul on the series’ first play, Plainfield soon scored a touchdown with 29 second left in the half to make it 21-12, but the Raiders again stopped the two-point attempt, which ultimately saved them the game.
"We knew it was a fight from the second that they scored the first touchdown," said Widder. "They hit pretty hard. They’re big kids and they’re quick... All we wanted to do today was [get to .500] and win this game."
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