Updated with more information, photos, and quotes from yesterday's edition.
PISCATAWAY — This was not the prettiest of victories for Union. But perhaps the fact that the Farmers didn’t win this season opener in the crispest fashion shows even more about this team and its high potential entering the 2019 season.
Penalties, turnovers, and cramps from both sides marked this tight battle between Union and Curtis (N.Y.) at the Rumble on the Raritan Rivalry Series at Rutgers’ SHI Stadium. And while Union didn’t play perfect football, the Farmers absolutely gutted out a 20-12 victory, showing flashes of dominance on offense and coming up with enormous stops and turnovers on defense to nurse narrow leads all afternoon.
Star senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn threw two touchdown passes — one to Ahmirr Robinson, playing in his future home digs, and another to Kayir McBride — on 230 total yards, while Diante Wilson ran for another to pace Union in scoring. The Farmers defense recovered from a shaky first half to dominate in the second, shutting out Curtis over the final 31 minutes to secure the victory.
“We talk about this all the time: State championship teams aren’t just going to easily win every single game,” Sanborn told TAPinto.net. “You’re going to have to scrap some out, and we’re a pretty scrappy team. When were up 13-12 at halftime, we knew that it was going to be the team that lasted longer — and we knew it had to be us.”
After both sides exchanged touchdowns on their opening drives, Wilson put the Farmers ahead for good on bruising a four-yard touchdown run with two minutes left in the first quarter to make it 13-6, and the Farmers would stay ahead for good — but just barely. Curtis added a TD with 5:24 remaining in the half, but since the Warriors missed the extra point on their first score, Union still clung to a 13-12 advantage at the half.
That halftime advantage was in jeopardy as Curtis was driving downfield with time ticking down in the second quarter, but McBride kept the Farmers ahead after intercepting a Curtis pass in the end zone as time expired.
The Farmers would then extend the lead four minutes into the second half, as Sanborn connected with McBride on a 44-yard TD strike to make it 20-12. The defense took over the rest of the way, forcing three turnovers and another turnover on downs after jumping out to the 20-12 advantage.
“Guys fought through this,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “A lot of guys were cramping up and a lot of guys were going down. We fought through it, and we made some plays when we needed to get the win.”
Union’s defense was susceptible early on in the game, allowing a pair of touchdowns in the first half, but that unit rose to the occasion with the game on the line down the stretch.
The Farmers’ “D” came up with four turnovers in the second half to secure the victory, two of which came deep in their own territory. Desmond Igbinosun intercepted a pass at the Farmers’ one yard line with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter, and then Dante Wilson recovered a fumble on the Union 11-yard line four minutes into the second half. The defensive unit also put together a monstrous stop on a Curtis 4th-and-3 with 5:36 remaining in the game to all but seal the deal.
“All summer long, we knew that they [Curtis] gave us a chance at the ball,” Igbinosun said about his team’s gutty defensive effort. “Coach Dan was telling us that we were gonna get a lot of turnovers if we move to the ball. So we just tried to exploit the things they did, and we did that a couple of times today.”
Back in August, Grasso had said that on Saturday, it might take some time for his Union players to get settled down as a result of the adrenaline boost from playing in such a large atmosphere in Rutgers' 52,000-seat stadium. However, Union showed poise and wasted no time getting to work.
"Our guys are really confident," said Grasso. "They come in positive and don’t really need much to get up. We like to get out in front and ride high, but we just had to fight, fight, fight... Offensive line did a good job early on and some really good receivers made some plays. Andrew just showed his ability to do his job. He did a great job for us as usual."
Sanborn struck on his first possession of the series, hooking up with Robinson on a 77-yard touchdown pass. The pass was short, but Robinson -- who will surely be catching more passes at this stadium when his Rutgers career begins next year -- broke a tackle on the left sideline and took it all the way to the house.
Robinson finished with 160 receiving yards on the afternoon.
"You live for moments like that," Robinson said. "It felt unreal going into the end zone. I was just excited to score my first touchdown in my future home.
"The corners were bailing a lot, so I just ran a comeback route, caught the ball, and used my fundamental skills and listened to my coaches on the sideline," he added.
Robinson and Sanborn came up key in Union's next scoring drive, too. They connected on a 20-yard hookup to put the Farmers in the redzone, where WIlson then ran for 20 yards on two carries -- one of 17 and another of 3 -- to put the Farmers ahead for good.
Sanborn wasn't finished, and later threw an absolute bomb to McBride for the 44-yard score in the third quarter. McBride lost his defender and was wide open down field, where Sanborn perfectly place a pass into his hands.
"Our playmakers are unbelievable," the quarterback said. "We have a really good team this year, and we’re really confident in what we do and what we run. We just go off of that."