LINDEN — In order to remain undefeated and officially run the table in conference play this season, Union knew it had a tough task standing in its way Friday night in Linden.
Even though Linden came into this contest a game under .500, records seemingly go out the window when the Farmers and Tigers get together. That was again the case Friday, but the Farmers nonetheless prevailed to complete this year’s conference play perfectly.
Union scored a touchdown on its first drive of each half, then came up with the big defensive plays when it needed in a 17-6 victory over a stingy Linden squad — a game in which the Farmers led wire-to-wire. Not only does Union remain undefeated on the season (6-0), but the Farmers have officially completed conference play with a perfect 5-0 mark against its cutthroat schedule of Mid-State 38 Watchung Division teams. It is believed to be the first time since the Lou Rettino days that Union has accomplished such feat.
Andrew Sanborn and Christian Murrell each had a rushing touchdown to put Union ahead, 14-0, while Ricardo Casas added a late 21-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game (17-6) after Linden had inched close on a fourth quarter score. Sanborn threw for 165 yards on the night, while Murrell added 101 all-purpose yards to pace the Farmer offense against a stingy Linden defense.
“We wanted to come out here and make a statement,” Sanborn told TAPinto Union. “[Linden’s] defense is great. It’s so frustrating playing them because their defense is just annoying. We did what we had to do. We came out and scored on the first drive, and I think that made a statement. We have to play better, though.”
To go perfect in conference play is quite the accomplishment for any team in the state, but an even more impressive one given the talent that Union has faced each of the past five weeks. Except maybe Plainfield, every team that Union beat in conference play is always a perennial threat the state, given the wealth of talented football players and coaches within the area.
“That’s huge for us, because we have so much respect for all of the teams in our conference, with all the coaches and all the players,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “For us to go through it this year perfect is a great thing for us as a team.”
There’s no better way to accomplish such feat by implementing the plays worked on in practice, and using them immediately come kickoff. That’s what Union did Friday, getting off to a start just as scripted.
On their first offensive series of the night, the Farmers needed eight plays to cover 51 yards after forcing a Linden three-and-out on game’s opening drive. Sanborn scored on one-yard keeper, pushing the pile with 5:53 left in first quarter as Union jumped ahead, 7-0, after the PAT. Receptions of 20 and 10 yards by Desmond Igbinosun helped Union enter red zone, and a Murrell seven-yard run on Second-and-Goal put the ball at one. That’s where Sanborn would run it into the house on the next play.
That lead held into the second half, when the Farmers once again scored according to plan.
On the first play from scrimmage out of the break, Murrell turned a short screen pass into a 44-yard gain, taking Union from its own 45-yard line up to Linden 11. A Linden penalty on the next play — a short run by Igbinosun — gave Union a First-and-Two on the Linden four, where Murrell ran it past the goal line one play later to make it 14-0 after Casas’ PAT.
“We plan a lot of that stuff in advance — plays and how we want to do things,” said Grasso. “So when it works out, it’s always good. I just wish we were a little more consistent. We had some penalties that really staled drives for us. I thought we moved the ball pretty well all night. They did too. Our defense bended but didn’t break, so we’re just really happy about that.”
Linden had some threatening drives throughout the night but was unable to get past the Farmers’ stout defense until 7:08 remained in the game. That’s when the Tigers’ Adonis Abad hooked up with Joshua Delacuz on a 35-yard TD pass to complete a nine-play, 86-yard drive marred by three consecutive penalties that put the ball into Union territory. The PAT would be no-good, however, and Union soon answered to make it a two-possession game and put a cap on it.
Casas booted a 21-yard field goal on the ensuing Union drive to
“We knew that we were going to be good," Sanborn said of his team regathering after the Linden TD. "We just had to come together as a team and not let them take away what we have going on.”
Despite allowing the touchdown, the Union defense, which has now given up just 7.5 points-per-game this season (6.6 in conference play), once again came up with the plays when it mattered most, and that was ultimately the difference Friday.
“We learned; in the first half, we learned that we really have to wrap up [on tackles] to stop the run,” said senior linebacker Darius Presley, who leads the team in tackles. “That’s what we talked about in the locker room. We toughened up on that, and basically we got better on that which helped give us the win.”
“Our defense keeps us in the game, because basically, we’re on every read — every run, every pass, all of that,” Presley added. “We’ve got to communicate and use all of our weapons, and then we’ll be great.”
The highlight of the Farmers’ defensive night came on the first play of the second quarter. The ensuing Linden drive after Sanborn’s first quarter touchdown saw the Tigers march deep into Farmer territory, just six yards away from the goal line. But on Third-and-Goal from the six, Dionte Wilson forced and recovered a fumble on the Union five, then returned it across midfield to give Union the ball back and end the Linden threat.
Union would go on to stall a monstrous 14-play Linden drive by forcing a turnover on downs as time ticked down in the opening half. Then on Linden’s final drive of the night, the Farmers sealed the win by inducing incompletions — and nearly interceptions — on three consecutive Tiger pass attempts.
“I don’t think it was our best game defensively; I think there’s stuff that we can definitely tighten up,” Grasso said. “But I think that when it came down to it, they made some big plays and won us the game. In this conference and this county, you can never quibble about wins. We want to play better and we want to improve on a weekly basis, but to win at Linden — tough team, well-coached — it’s a good win.”
With conference play in the rearview mirror, Union will now be tested heavily with three challenging non-conference games heading into the playoffs. Next week, the Farmers host a perennially-tough Hunterdon Central team to 'The Barn', then play powerhouses Bridgewater-Raritan and Sayreville to finish the season.
The Farmers will look to not only complete a perfect regular season in those games, but also improve upon some weaknesses to ensure that they are the best football team that they can be when they start their state championship run in November.
“We have to be more disciplined," Sanborn said. "We got a couple of flags that we have to avoid and we have to just get better with the little stuff and mature.”