WARREN — As senior running back Christian Murrell saw things, the reason why his Union team went into halftime without a lead for the first time all season Friday night was not because of things the Farmers had to improve upon.
But on what they weren’t doing.
“It’s not what he had to do; it’s what we didn’t do,” Murrell told TAPinto Union. “We didn’t put our heads down and run. Just coming out [of halftime] with our heads high, we did not lose one bit of confidence.”
Splitbacks Murrell (two TDs) and Diante Wilson (TD) combined for 205 of Union’s 270 total rushing yards, as the Farmers took to the ground to run past Watchung Hills, 34-14, Friday night with three unanswered touchdowns in the second half, severing a 14-14 halftime deadlock. Quarterback Andrew Sanborn threw for 120 yards with a passing and rushing touchdown, while Desmond Igbinosun and Ahmirr Robinson added scores for the undefeated (6-0) Farmers.
With the win, Union has clinched the Mid-State 38 Watchung Division championship. The Farmers are now 4-0 in the division with just one opponent — Linden — remaining. Every other team in the division has lost to Union, whereas Linden has multiple losses, meaning Union would hold the tiebreaker over every other opponent if need be.
It is the second consecutive season that Union has beaten Watchung Hills to claim at least a share of the divisional crown. Unlike last year, however, there is not as much of a novelty to it for the Farmers.
No, this is just business as usual for an undefeated team that now looks as primed as ever to make a state championship run.
“It feels good, but we’re not going to be satisfied,” Murrell said. “We’re going to keep grinding. We’re trying to win in December — this is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is that ring.”
Not leading at halftime for the first time all season, Union went into the locker room and made the necessary adjustments against a Watchung Hills team that is among the most improved squads in the state. And coming out of the break, the Farmers wasted no time ensuring that a first half scare would not ruin their chance to add the first of what they hope are many banners this fall.
On the opening drive of the second half, Union recovered a Watchung Hills onside kick at their own 48, then proceeded to scored a touchdown nearly three minutes later to jump ahead to a lead they’d never relent. That opened the floodgates, as Union would score a total of three unanswered TDs over the course of the final two quarters to run away — quite literally — with their fifth straight win to open up the season.
Wilson broke free for a 23-yard touchdown run to cap off the six-play, 2:59 half-opening drive. That gave Union a 20-14 advantage at the time, and with the Farmers’ defense tightening things up enough to pitch a shutout in the second half, that was all they’d need to hold onto the lead.
Sanborn threw a pair of 12-yard passes — the first to Desmond Igbinosun and second to Kayir McBride — to help Union get down field on the drive. The completion to McBride put the Farmers on the Warrior 23, where Wilson scored from on an east-to-west run on the very next play.
Union would soon add insurance later in the quarter when Murrell rushed for a seven-yard touchdown, and late in the fourth, Robinson caught a 30-yard TD pass from Sanborn to make it 34-14 and put the icing on the cake.
“I was really proud of us in the second half,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso. “At 14-14, we could’ve succumbed to the pressure at halftime. But we regrouped, made a couple adjustments, and I think the kids did a great job.”
“They know what to do, but you just say, ‘Hey man, we’re in a football game — just play football’,” Grasso added. “That’s all; it’s not too complicated. We were positive and not too upset about it. There were some negative things in the first half and we kind of overlooked them, made changed, and just told the kids to play our game.”
Union again took to the ground to gain some insurance. Murrell busted through a hole up the middle and scored on a seven-yard run with 7:44 left in the game, capping off a drive in which Union covered 83 yards on just 10 plays bridging the third and fourth quarters. Sanborn found Kayir McBride on a successful two-point conversion pass to bring the score to 28-14.
Murrell also had a huge 23-yard gain on the drive’s first play. An Aaron Myrick 20-yard reception and Murrell 10-yard run helped put the Farmers in the red-zone.
Rutgers commit Ahmirr Robinson was held in check for most of the night, but put the cherry on top with a 30-yard touchdown grab on a pass from Sanborn down the left sideline in man coverage with 3:12 left in the game. Union threw the ball sparingly but effectively Friday, with seven of Sanborn's eight completions coming over 10 yards, but it was without a doubt the running game and the linemen who made it possible that stole the show.
Terrell Cannon, Chiemela Oneugbu, Khari Parker, Malachi Pierre-Louis, D'Shawn Etienne, and Jared Durand all made up a stout offensive line that provided ample holes for the backs to hit. Murrell, Wilson, and Trey Noelsaint had the majority of carries and hit those holes seamlessly all night.
“We’ve got a bunch of good receivers and they [opponents] tend to look away from the running backs,” said Murrell. “That just opens it up for us. We’ve got an amazing line in front of us, so they just open up the holes and we’re going to hit them.”
Murrell, Wilson, Noelsaint, and Sanborn's rushing ability make the Farmers so dangerous on the ground. With a core of elite receivers, too, it's truly a pick-your-poison for opponents.
"It’s a great advantage to have with the guys we have outside throwing the ball to," said Grasso. "If a team gives us one thing, we can do something else, and we’re able to adjust. We’ve got a good, smart kid running the offense [Sanborn] who’s got a lot of experience, so we just try to move the ball around and give it to our athletes to make plays.”
Union's second half route was quite the contrast to the first half dogfight.
Igbinosun scored on a six-yard sweep to his left with 2:11 remaining in the opening quarter as Union jumped out early to a 6-0 lead. Watchung Hills immediately countered, however, on their ensuing drive when WH 15 scored on a one-yard plunge to complete a monstrous 15-play, 80-yard series to make it 7-6 Warriors after the PAT with 7:01 remaining.
The Farmers regained the lead on a 28-yard breakaway touchdown from an untouched Murrell to make it 14-7 with 2:38 left in the half after am Etienne fumble recovery gave them the ball at their own 31. Again, however, Watchung Hills responded when given the ball back, as Chad Martini hooked up with WH 4 on an 11-yard TD with just 13 seconds remaining before halftime, completing an impressive 12-play, 78-yard two minute drill.