WESTFIELD, NJ — Once again, the Westfield football team found a way.
Jake Vall-Llobera scored two touchdowns and Westfield reinforced its mastery in the second half of close games with a 17-10 victory over Ridge in the first round of the Section 2, Group 5 state playoffs on Saturday.
Westfield will host Elizabeth in the semifinals next Saturday at 1 p.m.
The victory extended Westfield's state-high winning streak to 34 games, but in order to secure the triumph, the Blue Devils needed to withstand Ridge's best shot. The visiting Red Devils gave Westfield all it could handle and played what was likely their best and most complete football game all season.
But Westfield has been winning games all season not by blowing out opponents, but by methodically chipping away at them, coming up with big plays when they are most needed, and closing teams out in the final quarter.
Although Vall-Llobera spends most of his time on defense playing end, he comes in to line up at quarterback in specific short-yardage situations for Westfield (9-0), which is how he scored both his team's TDs Saturday. His first TD came with Westfield trailing, 7-0, on third-and-one from the 6-yard line with 3:04 left in the second quarter. The 6-3, 225-pound senior took a direct snap, followed a crushing block by guard Drew Ortiz all the way into the end zone, and then Aidan Boland's extra point tied the game, 7-7.
"We have a special offense for those situations," said Vall-Llobera, who replaces sophomore Hank Shapiro at quarterback in short-yardage spots. "We put our two biggest linebackers out there and play offense with the same aggressiveness we would play on defense."
A Ridge fumble on its own 36-yard line with 2:13 left in the first half gave Westfield the chance to take a lead into halftime. Shapiro's 16-yard completion to Tommy Norris, who made a diving grab on the 10-yard line on third-and-13, set up Boland's 22-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. That gave Westfield a 10-7 lead.
Ridge had taken a 7-0 lead on RJ Milligan's 3-yard TD run with 16 seconds left in the first quarter. Milligan finished with 167 yards on 25 carries, running tough and repeatedly keeping his legs moving after the initial hit.
"RJ played hurt the whole second half of the season," said Ridge coach Bill Tracy. "He is one of the hardest runners I have ever coached."
In the third quarter, Westfield looked poised to score again after taking the opening kickoff, but cornerback Sean Spina made a spectacular interception in the end zone to return possession to Ridge. The Red Devils advanced to near midfield, where they faced fourth-and-three, lined up as if to punt, but then snapped the ball to an up-back in an attempt to continue the drive. Westfield stopped Ridge two yards short and took over on the Ridge 49 with 6:24 left in the third quarter.
"That call is on me," Tracy said of the fake punt. "We wanted to come in aggressive there, but it didn't work out for us."
In typical Westfield fashion, the Blue Devils proceeded to slowly bleed — rather than gash — the Ridge defense with a 13-play, 49-yard scoring drive on which no single play gained more than eight yards. Vall-Llobera closed out the drive with a 2-yard run up the middle off another direct snap on fourth-and-one to give Westfield a 17-7 lead with nine seconds left in the third quarter.
But Ridge (4-6), which played one of the toughest schedules in New Jersey and looked to be nearly Westfield's equal all day Saturday, would not go away. The Red Devils moved from their own 32 to the Westfield 3 in nine plays before electing to opt for a 20-yard field goal by Nolan Hughes on fourth-and-goal from the 3. Hughes split the uprights to bring Ridge within 17-10 with 6:18 left.
Westfield appeared to score again with 3:29 left on a 25-yard keeper by Shapiro, but, despite appearing to cross the plane of the goal line with possession of the ball, he fumbled and Ridge recovered in the end zone. The officials ruled no touchdown and Ridge ball with 3:29, giving the feisty Red Devils one more shot. Their last gasp including a breathtaking catch by Devin Stieglitz for a first down on the 47 on fourth-and-nine, but that's as close as Ridge got as Westfield closed off any further advance.
"Regardless of our offense," Vall-Llobera said, "We prepare for anything and take great pride in being the best defense in the state. We believe in ourselves, and we know the pressure of what's at stake."
Ridge, which lost to Westfield, 23-7, in Week 2, became just the second team this season to score more than seven points in a game against Westfield.
"Westfield made each play that they had to make to win the game," Tracy said. "We leave the field with our heads held high, though. Given the opponent, on the road, in a playoff game, I think this is the best game we could have played."
NOTES: Sophomore halfback Tim Alliegro finished with 100 yards on 17 carries for Westfield. ...Ridge linebacker Jack Forand had two of the Red Devils' four QB sacks. ... Westfield totaled 298 yards from scrimmage, Ridge had 216 yards. ...The two teams combined for a total of one penalty through the first three quarters of a game that wrapped up in just one hour and 50 minutes of real time.