MONTCLAIR, NJ — There certainly wasn’t a shortage of motivation for Montclair entering Saturday’s state playoff opener with West Orange, and the Mounties played like an inspired team hungry to feed off those emotions.
For one, Montclair was looking to avenge a stunning first-week loss to this same West Orange team, which won only two other games. And, perhaps more personally, the Mounties were rallying around star senior linebacker Willie Matthews, who underwent season-ending surgery Thursday after rupturing his Achilles in the final week of the regular season.
No. 1-seeded Montclair accomplished both, as the Mounties turned in a stellar defensive effort despite the absence of Matthews, and got the last laugh against No. 8 West Orange with a 35-0 victory in the first round of the North 1, Group 5 playoffs Saturday afternoon at Woodman Field. The Mounties allowed just 60 total yards of offense, while Charles Murphy Jr. and Josh Crawford each rushed for two touchdowns to punch the Mounties’ ticket to the semifinal.
Montclair advances to host No. 5 North Bergen next Saturday afternoon with a trip to the sectional final on the line.
“We were definitely inspired,” said Gary Robinson, Jr., a key on Montclair’s defense. “We were so hungry this week, knowing that this is an opportunity you don’t get too many times. To play someone that beat you Week '0' and play them in the first round of the playoffs? We just had that dog mentality all week of practice.”
And that dog mentality showed through the play of Robinson and Montclair’s defense. Robinson recovered a fumble with 7:18 left in the first quarter, and helped lead a Mounties defensive unit turn in its best effort of the season. Montclair induced six three-and-outs, only three first downs, and just 60 net yards against all afternoon. It also came up with a fourth-down stop.
Surely, that effort will make Matthews proud.
“We were texting on him, checking on him every day,” Robinson said. “After he had his surgery, he sends a picture of himself smiling. That really lifted up our spirits, and we just executed the game plan and did what we had to do.”
The defensive prowess was more than enough for the Mounties’ offense to take advantage of.
After forcing a three-and-out on the first drive of the game, Montclair went ahead, 7-0, on its first series. Murphy rushed for a four-yard TD to cap off the methodical five play, 43-yard sequence in which the Mounties didn’t have to attempt a pass.
On West Orange’s ensuing drive, Robinson scooped up the fumble at the Mountaineers’ 47, and Montclair seized the opportunity. Josh Crawford capitalized on Robinson’s fumble recovery with an eight-yard run into the end zone, giving Montclair a 14-0 lead just nine minutes in.
“That sets the tone a lot [when we establish the run], due to the fact that our offense is starting to be more high-powered like last year,” Murphy said. “We’re relying on our run game a lot, but knowing that we can throw the ball is relieving.”
That was evident when Murphy hooked up with Walter King on a 35-yard TD pass to complete a five-play, 50-yard drive to make it 21-0 43 seconds before halftime. King leaped over Terrence Toussaint around the 10-yard line to make the spectacular catch – the longest from either side.
Murphy, who rushed for 121 yards, would later break through the line of scrimmage on a keeper and run 43 yards to the end zone midway through the third quarter to extend Montclair’s lead to 28-0.
“One of the biggest differences from the Week 0 game to now is that Charles Murphy is reading the run a lot better and pulling when he’s supposed to,” Montclair head coach John Fiore said. “The kids did exactly what they were supposed to do today, and they kept it clean. Very happy with this performance.”
After Murphy’s 43-yard TD opened up the scoring in the second half, Montclair sealed the deal when Crawford busted through an open hole and ran 31 yards into the end zone to make it 35-0 with 4:26 left to play.
Crawford finished with 150 rushing yards to go along with his two TDs.
Montclair has certainly turned around its season since that opening loss against West Orange, and the Mounties are truly playing their best football right now. Though Montclair didn't have to contain West Orange star playmaker Jordan White, a James Madison commit sidelined with injury, the Mounties looked like a completely different team from the one that left West Orange empty back on August 30.
“We were very eager, knowing that we had West Orange again,” Murphy Jr. said. “We felt that it was a fluke game [in Week 0], and we just wanted to come out here and prove that it was a fluke. We're back to being Montclair again.”