UNION, NJ — After uncharacteristically being held to just one touchdown in the first half to take a slim advantage into the locker room, undefeated Union then extended that lead by scoring on its first two drives of the second half.
With the Farmers’ offense now rolling, it looked as though they would run away with this game after extending to a 20-0 lead with 15 seconds left in the third quarter. But the further you go in the state playoffs, the less safe a lead becomes. That is especially true when playing a potent opponent, like the West Orange football team Union was matched up against Friday night.
“It’s the state semifinals and it’s not going to be easy,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “We played against a really good team with a really good offense, so we knew that sooner or later they were going to get it going.”
No. 4-seeded West Orange indeed got things going, and responded to score a pair of unanswered touchdowns in a span of under four minutes during the fourth quarter. However, No. 1-seeded Union was then able to run out the clock over the final 7:06 to escape with a 20-14 victory in the North 2, Group 5 sectional semifinal at Cooke Memorial Field Friday night.
Andrew Sanborn threw a touchdown pass to Ahmirr Robinson on Union’s first drive of the game, then Desmond Igbinosun and Diante Wilson added rushing touchdowns in the third quarter to provide Union with the 20-0 advantage entering the final frame. That lead proved to be just large enough, as fourth quarter West Orange touchdowns from Mekhi Green and Jonathan Robinson were too little, too late for the Mountaineers.
Sanborn finished with 135 passing yards and 85 rushing yards to help lead the Farmer offense. Though he did not enter the end zone, running back Christian Murrell was a workhorse and helped ice the game on the final drive, finishing with a total of 110 rushing yards.
“When they scored their two, of course I got a little nervous, but I knew that we were going to pull through,” said Union quarterback Andrew Sanborn. “We’re a strong team and we’ve faced adversity, and we fight through it.”
Union advances to its first sectional final since 2013, and will host the championship next Friday night at 7 p.m. The Farmers had a chance to play the same team — Ridge — that they did in that 2013 final, but the Red Devils ironically blew a 20-0 lead against Clifton Friday night, as the Mustangs ultimately won, 42-35.
“Ever since I was an underclassman, it was always a dream to do this,” Sanborn said of getting to the ‘chip. “The feeling right now is, of course we’re so happy with the outcome, but we’re not satisfied. We knew that we could get this far, and now that we did, we’ve gotta finish the whole thing. It was a great game though.”
After an eight-yard rushing touchdown from Wilson gave Union the 20-0 lead with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter, West Orange responded quickly and started to fray some nerves throughout the packed house at Cooke Memorial Field.
On the ensuing West Orange drive following Wilson’s score, the Mountaineers marched 71 yards downfield on just seven plays, first crossing the 50 on a 35-yard pass from Mason Murdock to Jayson Raines. West Orange then got on the board six plays later, when Green ran for a 15-yard touchdown with 10:56 left on the clock.
After Union went three and out on its next series, the Mountaineers got the ball back at their own 45 and needed just seven more plays to make it a one-possession game. Murdock found Robinson on a short pass up the middle for a 10-yard score, which then cut Union’s lead to 20-14 following the PAT.
But Union withstood the rally, and in doing so, will now have a shot to win its first state title since 1993.
“Bend but don’t break,” Igbinosun said about the Farmers’ mentality at that point. “Penalties put us in bad positions, and they scored, but we knew that the game wasn’t over when we were up 20-0. They scored 14 unanswered but we knew we couldn’t let them score anymore touchdowns. When we got back on offense, we tried our best to keep the ball in our possession.”
Union iced the game on its next drive, keeping the clock ticking on seven plays before kneeling twice to finish it. First-down runs from Wilson and Murrell, and a big completion to Robinson allowed the clock to keep running down.
"We had to make it happen on that drive so we could close out the game," Murrell said. "When we gotta run out the clock, that means we’re doing something well. Got the lead and we’re taking it down. That’s what we wanted."
The Farmers’ offense ended this game and also started it, as it scored on its first drive of the night to provide a lead that would never disappear.
After forcing a West Orange three-and-out on the first drive of the game, Union got the ball back at its own 40 to begin its night offensively. Union quickly drove into the red zone, but was at a crossroads when Sanborn was sacked for a 15-yard loss to make it third-and-goal from the 19. The response was quick, however, as Sanborn made up for it on the very next play by connecting with Robinson on a slant up the middle for a 19-yard touchdown with 3:39 left in the first quarter.
“They had a single high safety, so we were practicing seams all week because if I look a safety off one way, obviously I have another guy on the other side,” Sanborn said. “We saw that when I connected with Ahmirr on the first touchdown.”
That was all Union would manage in the first half, though, and West Orange nearly scored late in the second. The Mountaineers drove as far as the Union 8 on their last drive of the half, but a third down sack by Terell Cannon and subsequent incomplete pass forced a turnover on downs. Union ran one more play as time expired, and coaxed West Orange into a personal foul, which added 15 yards on the Mountaineers' kickoff to start the second half.
That put Union in good field position, and Igbinosun would score on a 5-yard run with 8:12 left in the third quarter to complete the nine-play, 50-yard half-opening drive. That run came on a fourth-and-3, in which Union elected to go for it after West Orange committed an encroachment on Ricardo Casas' field goal attempt on fourth-and-7.
"It turned out to be really big," Grasso, Jr. said of that score. "We knew it inside [in the locker room] and we had the 15-yard penalty, so we were going to have good field position. We thought that was a really opportune time to get one in the end zone."
A personal foul on the ensuing West Orange drive forced the Mountaineers into a 4th-and-20 situation, and Union soon found itself on its 30 following a Mountaineer punt. 11 plays later, Wilson was celebrating with teammates in the endzone following an eight-yard run up the middle to make it 20-0.
"It was very, very important for us to score there," Sanborn said about those two third quarter scores. "It was going to hopefully get them down a little bit, but obviously they came back and scored a couple of their own. But it was very important for us to do that."
Wilson received great blocking up front from the Union O-line on that run, and that unit paved the way for a very successful rushing game Friday night.
"Our offensive line really helped us pull it out with the running backs," Grasso, Jr. said. "Christian and Diante both did a great job. Diante is only a junior and Christian has really earned it over his four years here."