UNION — The cold whether can sometimes be a serious detriment to a football team, as the elements can hinder one’s ability both physically and mentally.
That was not the case for Union Friday night.
Commencing the North Jersey Section 2, Group 5 playoffs in sub-freezing temperatures, No. 1-seeded Union appeared completed unaffected and rolled to a 35-0 victory over No. 8 Paterson Kennedy at Cooke Memorial Field. The Farmers took to the ground early to get ahead, then — contrary to the belief that cold whether stops a passing game — put the game away through the air, while the defense turned in arguably its best performance of the season in the complete team win.
Union advances to play a very-talented No. 4-seeded West Orange team — which defeated No. 5 Piscataway Friday night — in the sectional semifinal next weekend at home.
“Honestly, no,” Union senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn said when asked whether the cold presented a challenge Friday night. “I got hand warmers, so if my hands are warm, I can throw the ball. We did and it was good.”
Indeed it was, as Sanborn rushed for a touchdown and threw for three more to lead the Farmers, who scored on their first three drives and punted just once all night, and not until late in the fourth quarter. Two of Sanborn’s TD passes were caught by Desmond Igbinosun — both in the second half — while Kayir McBride reeled in another at the the end of the first half. Christian Murrell added a rushing touchdown.
Igbinosun, who plays both ways, also had an interception, while brother younger brother Davison, a sophomore, recovered a fumble to help lead the Farmers’ stout defensive effort. After allowing 68 points in the final three weeks of the regular season to inflate once incredibly low defensive numbers, Union was hungry to regain that defensive dominance that helped it gain the top overall seed for the tournament.
“I think we got our swagger back,” Desmond Igbinosun said about the defensive showing Friday. “We started off the season dominant, but then the last couple of games we’ve been having shootouts. We’ve got to be more disciplined on the penalties, but this goose egg definitely says a lot and what we went through in practice.”
Union was in complete control from the rip and needed just seven plays on the game’s opening drive to establish the lead and set the tone for the rest of the night.
On that opening drive, the Farmers started with ball at their own 35, but runs of 15 and 23 yards from Murrell helped to quickly put the ball in the red zone; the later of which got it to the Kennedy one. One the very next play after his 23-yard breakaway, Murrell ran it one yard up the gut and entered the end zone untouched, as Union jumped ahead 7-0 just 2:27 into the game following the PAT from Ricardo Casas.
After forcing a three-and-out with two sacks on Kennedy’s ensuing possession to pin the Knights deep into Farmer territory, Union earned great field position upon receiving the punt and soon found itself in the end zone again when Sanborn ran a one-yard QB sneak to make it 13-0 with 4:27 left in the opening quarter.
Whether or not Union was deliberately running the ball more early on because of the cold air, it is still a tremendous luxury to have a great running game to resort to when conditions are less than ideal.
“[The cold] shouldn’t be [a problem offensively] because it’s the same for everybody, but I guess it is a little bit,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “Thankfully we can run the ball and it helped us all night tonight. I think we had some opportunities that we took care of to kind of make it easy for ourselves.”
Now staked to a two-touchdown lead, Union took to the air to put this game in the rear-view mirror.
The Farmers' third drive of the night started at their own one-yard line, but that didn't matter. Union marched 99 yards downfield in 12 plays and finished the massive drive when Sanborn rolled out to his right and connected with McBride in the corner of the endzone for a 14-yard TD strike with 5:02 left in the second quarter. Sanborn would then run in a two point conversion. The drive, which bridged the first two quarters, ate 7:32 off the clock and opened the floodgates for Union.
That made it 21-0 entering halftime -- a lead that only grew. On Union's first drive of the second half, Sanborn hooked up with Igbinosun on a 14-yard screen pass for a touchdown, hitting the junior receiver in stride, who then ran it to the house untouched. The duo would later add another screen pass touchdown in the fourth quarter, which, following Casas' PAT, established the running clock for the remainder.
"The first one, I stepped back and he put it right in front of me; he caught me in stride and I was happy to get in the endzone for that," Igbinosun said. "My coach — coach Jimmy Melody — told us that we had to battle against the elements tonight. We responded well to that."
Igbinosun, who has attracted heavy Division I recruiting interest from schools such as Rutgers, Syracuse, and Northern Illinois this season, is in the midst of a tear right now. He now has two receiving touchdowns in each of the Farmers' three most recent games, and owns 11 all-purpose TDs on the season.
"Desmond is a great athlete -- he goes both ways and he’s a great receiver and safety," Sanborn said. "He always executes on offense. It’s great to have him on this side of the ball."
Igbinosun's impact extends far beyond making offensive plays, though, as he helps key the Farmers' defensive backfield with brother Davison. The two of them add to an absolutely stacked 4-3 defense that features a dangerous line up front and a hard-hitting linebacker trio led by Darius Presley, McBride, and Jalen Carter.
All of those defensive pieces came together Friday to produce the Farmers' first shutout since its Week 2 victory over Elizabeth, which was also a 35-0 victory.
"We played a real physical game tonight, and I really think it affected the other team’s game plan," Grasso, Jr. said. We had a good plan coming in, and we executed it. The defensive coaching staff did a good job, and we’re real happy with it."
The key defensively was stopping Kennedy's Jamir Wight-Collins, who is normally a wide receiver but took direct snaps Friday. Wright-Collins is one of the most explosive players in the state and currently holds FBS offers from Rutgers and Massachusetts, among others.
"We knew that to stop him and we had to rally to the ball," Igbinosun said. "He rarely goes down on first contact, so we rallied and we had that juice; we had that energy tonight. It’s hard to have that juice in the cold, but we had it."