UNION — At around 7:30 last Friday night, a 2019 sequel to the 2013 Union vs. Ridge state sectional championship was looking like a strong possibility.
Top-seeded Union was up on No. 4-seeded West Orange in one of the North 2, Group 5 sectional semifinals, while in the other semifinal, No. 2-seeded Ridge had rolled out to a 20-0 lead against No. 3-seeded Clifton. But then the unthinkable happened.
Clifton shocked the state and rallied all the way back, on the road, to erase a 20-0 lead and eventually advance to the sectional final with a 42-35 victory over the Red Devils. Ironically, Union also held a once 20-0 lead in its semifinal before West Orange threatened with two late touchdowns, though the Farmers would hold on to win, 20-14.
As such, Union (11-0) will play Clifton (7-3) for the first time ever this Friday night at Cooke Memorial Field as the Farmers vie for their first sectional championship since 1993. In addition to a shiny new trophy, a trip to MetLife Stadium for the North Jersey Group 5 super-sectional bowl game will be on the line, as well. In that contest, the winner of this game would play the winner of the North 1, Group 5 championship, which is between Ridgewood and Passaic County Technical Institute.
Contrary to Union, Clifton is a team without much of a playoff history. The Mustangs have made 15 playoff appearances since 1974, per Gridiron New Jersey, but have only gone a collective 5-14 in the postseason. This is just Clifton’s third-ever appearance in a sectional final, and the Mustangs have won just once, which came in 2006 — also their most recent appearance in the finals.
The Farmers, on the other hand, are making their 16th visit to a sectional final since 1974. Their last trip came in 2013 with that aforementioned game against Ridge, which resulted in a 48-13 loss at Rutgers during current head coach Lou Grasso, Jr.’s first year at the helm. The Farmers’ most recent title in 1993 came against Randolph under legendary head coach Lou Rettino.
But come kickoff Friday night, history is essentially irrelevant to the outcome.
Clifton Scouting Report
Clifton has two outstanding strengths offensively which allowed for the dramatic comeback last Friday night against a very good Ridge (8-2) team, and Union’s defense will have to make the plays all night long in order to stop them.
For one, bruising running back Christian Boneparte broke free for three touchdowns on 148 total rushing yards, and is a force in the backfield. That is not new for Clifton, which is largely in the place it is this year because of him and his over 1,200 rushing yards this fall. What allows for success for the 5-foot-9, 155-pound unsigned senior is a big and physical offensive line, which will be one of the main keys to this game.
In its seven wins, Clifton rarely blows opponents out — the Mustangs have out-scored teams, 204-128 — but can wear them down with the elusive Boneparte, who seldom goes down upon first contact, often requiring arduous gang tackles to slow down. Boneparte is the statistical leader of the offense that starts sophomore quarterback Kyle Vellis under center. Boneparte’s younger brother, junior Caleb, is the top aerial target. However, a decent chunk of the Mustangs’ offensive playbook involves wildcat plays with Christian taking the snap.
Defensively, Clifton allows just 12.8 points-per-game, with last week’s 35 being a season-high. That being said, it’s hard to imagine that the Mustangs have faced a more explosive offense than Union’s.
Clifton’s wins have come against Mount Olive, Paterson Kennedy, Hackensack twice, Paterson Eastside, Ridge, and, Bergen County powerhouse Ridgewood. In the playoffs, it knocked off Hackensack, 26-6, in the first round before the Ridge triumph last weekend. The Mustangs’ loses are to Passaic Tech, Delbarton, and North 1, Group 4 finalist Northern Highlands in a game played at Army West Point.
The only common opponent between the two is Kennedy, which Union defeated, 35-0, in the first round, and Clifton beat, 14-7, back on September 19.
Keys to the Game
It would be hard to imagine that the winner of this game does not advance to MetLife in large part because of the play of their lines. This will truly be a battle in the trenches, and while Clifton boasts very strong lines both ways, so does Union. JaQuan Robinson, Jared Durand, Khari Parker, Chiemela Onuegbu, D'Shawn Etienne, Terrell Cannon, Malachi Pierre-Louis, and Warren Francis have all been mainstays up front and have time and time again proven capable of winning battles at the line of scrimmage. Friday night needs to be no different.
The lines are so important because they are the keys to success for both offenses. However, Union definitely has the more complete and multi-versed offense, and a successful performance from its O-Line will pave the way for all of those playmakers. Quarterback Andrew Sanborn has endless amounts of targets to go to in the air, like Rutgers commit Ahmirr Robinson, Desmond Igbinosun, Kayir McBride, Jalen Carter, and Elijah White. However, the Farmers are just as strong running the ball, led by backs Christian Murrell and Diante Wilson, along with Sanborn's ability to scramble out of the pocket for long gains.
The lines are also vital defensively, especially in Union's case, because they provide opportunities for Union's hard hitting linebacker trio -- typically Darius Presley, Carter, and Wilson -- to make big plays.
Union 35, Clifton 7