EAST RUTHERFORD — The last time that Union lost a football game came last November when the Farmers were dealt a crushing defeat in the state sectional semifinals up at Union City. As Union gathered following that loss, the glow of MetLife Stadium — the prestigious destination in the Meadowlands that the Farmers strived to play for a regional championship in — was ever present in the background, sitting just a few miles below the rooftop stadium in Hudson County.
Since that rainy November night last year, Union has been on a mission, and will now finally get that chance to play in MetLife Friday night. After winning its first sectional championship since 1993 and completing a 12-0 record for the first time ever with its win over Clifton in the North 2, Group 5 final last weekend, Union will now play Ridgewood for the North Jersey Group 5 regional bowl game Friday at 7:05 p.m.
Both Union and Ridgewood (9-2) are two of the most storied football programs in the state of New Jersey, and between the two sit 56 combined playoff appearances since the playoff era began in 1974. The regional championship bowl games only started last year, but Ridgewood is already playing in its second and looking for redemption after losing to Piscataway in last year’s game.
Each team is battle-tested and both enter this game with heavy hearts — Union’s has been playing for injured teammate Kofi Ansah, who is on the mend from a scary spleen injury suffered in October, while Ridgewood has played inspired football after longtime head coach Chuck Johnson was hospitalized with illness about six weeks ago.
Union will also be on heavy milestone watch, as senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn enters the final game of his legendary career sitting just 271 passing yards away from 7,000 career. Ridgewood has a very stingy defense that has allowed just 10.6 points-per-game this season, but Sanborn is considered by many to be the best quarterback in the state and has an equally-elite corps of receivers, so that will certainly be something to keep track of.
Union's sectional title last week was its first since 1993 and Ridgewood's was its second in as many years, but don't be fooled, these teams are the gold standard when it comes to football legacy in New Jersey.
Since the playoff era, Union now has 11 state championships while Ridgewood has six. In addition to their 56 combined playoff appearances, the two teams have appeared in 26 sectional finals. Union holds the hand in playoff records (37-22/0.626 percent) compared to Ridgewood's (29-19/.604 percent).
Ridgewood Scouting Report
Year-in, year-out, Ridgewood has set a consistent standard of winning and seemingly always finds itself playing at MetLife Stadium come this time of year. Though he will not be on the sidelines Friday, Johnson has been at the helm of the Maroons for 36 seasons. During that time, his Maroons have become a poster child for the Wing-T offense — which, ironically, was Union’s offensive identity for years under the legendary Lou Rettino — and this year is no different for Ridgewood.
Under that Wing-T, Ridgewood is a rush-heavy team, amassing 2,457 yards on the ground compared to 1,494 via the air. Gabe Santiago is the leading rusher with 743 rushing yards on the season, but his team-best average of 67.5 yards-per-game shows how Ridgewood attacks opponents — often with short, conservative sweeps, counters, and misdirections. Quarterback Liam Tarleton is solid under center, but the Maroons rarely pass — aside from Tom Baroque (24), no other Ridgewood player has double-digit receptions this year.
In order, Ridgewood beat Bayonne, Westfield, and Passaic County Tech to reach the regional title game, outscoring those opponents 60-29. The Maroons hung on by the skin of their teeth in the previous two rounds, however, rallying to beat Westfield 16-10 and sneaking by PCTI, 10-7, in the North 1, Group 5 final last Friday. The Maroons' regular season wins came over Old Tappan, Irvington, PCTI, Paterson Eastside, Paramus, and Paterson Kennedy, while loses were to Clifton and Hackensack.
Ridgewood and Union have three common opponents — Westfield, Clifton, and Paterson Kennedy. Both teams beat Westfield (Union 10-7, Ridgewood 16-10) and Kennedy (Union 35-0, Ridgewood 27-0), though Union beat Clifton (42-28) last week while Ridgewood fell to the Mustangs (13-0) in October.
Keys to the Game
Union has been money on scoring on its first possessions of games this season, and Friday night needs to be no different for the Farmers. Due to the contextual nature of its offense, Ridgewood is a team that can have seven-minute possessions, so scoring early is absolutely crucial in the Farmers setting the tone and getting the game to shift towards their style of play.
That being said, Ridgewood statistically may have the best defense that Union has seen this season. An early score would be a dagger to the Maroon D which has only allowed four touchdowns in the postseason, and hasn't given up more than two touchdowns in all but one game this year.
Union has success out of the gate because of its explosive offense full of possibilities, from receivers in Ahmirr Robinson, Desmond Igbinosun, Elijah White, Kayir McBride, and Jalen Carter, to 1,000-yard running backs in Christian Murrell and Diante Wilson. Sanborn is the catalyst with his arm, but can also run well, too. The offensive line of Jared Durand, Terell Cannon, Malachi Pierre-Louis, Chiemela Onuegbu, Khari Parker, and JaQuan Robinson.
Defensively, Union's guys up front and linebacker trio of Carter, Wilson, and Darius Presley will be under the spotlight against the rush-heavy Wing-T. Whether the D-linemen stop the run up front, or funnel the rushers into Union's linebackers, the Farmers will need to stop Ridgewood in the box. Ridgewood has only scored more than three touchdowns twice this year and in order for Union to complete the dream season, that trend will need to continue.
Union 28, Ridgewood 7