In their 85th meeting between the Montclair State University Red Hawks and their deep-rooted New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) rival, The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) Lions, the Red Hawks managed to achieve the victory after rallying from behind for a gutsy 21-17 victory.
It was evident from the onset that Saturday’s contest would be an erratic affair as both squads traded interceptions on their initial drives. Montclair State’s senior defensive back Shaon Stephenson notched his third pick off of the season in the game’s second play from scrimmage, setting the Red Hawks up with prime field position. After a 29-yard hookup with senior wide receiver Julanee Prince, junior quarterback John Apicella and the Red Hawks were sitting pretty on the goal line, ready to leap out to an early 7-0 lead. Apicella had his second and goal pass attempt from the 10 yard line snatched by TCNJ’s Sam Jackson in the end zone. On the ensuing TCNJ series, the Lions’ quarterback Trevor Osler connected with wide receiver Thomas Koenig for an 80-yard touchdown pass.
After a three-and-out for the Red Hawks on their next possession, the Lions tacked on another touchdown as Osler found Koenig once again on a strike from seven yards out. With the Lions moving the ball through the air at will, the Red Hawks had some soul searching to do. Struggling to generate practically any offense on their first four drives, the tides began to turn on their fifth series starting at the 2:29 mark in the first quarter. Searching for some stability, the Red Hawks established the run by feeding the backfield tandem of junior running-backs Anthony Travisano and Willie Barr on the first three snaps before the elusive Barr broke off a 26-yard rush for a touchdown, cutting the deficit in half at 14-7. Barr’s dash was the spark that the Red Hawks’ dormant offense needed. TCNJ’s kicker Zach Pharo drilled a 40-yard field goal attempt right before halftime, giving the Lions a 17-7 edge heading into the locker room.
The Red Hawks received the ball on the kickoff to start the second half. As an offense trying to establish a balanced attack on the ground and in the air, the Red Hawks depended upon Apicella’s instinctive game managing skills for the remainder of the game. Apicella rose to the occasion. Apicella helmed a 13 play, 75-yard drive that lasted 6:19. Apicella methodically led the Red Hawks down the field, completing six of his seven pass attempts. In one of the most pivotal moments of the game, Apicella hit senior wide receiver Taj Huggins on a fourth and 11 situation for a 26-yard gain to move all the way down to the TCNJ 8-yard line. After a TCNJ timeout and a rush attempt by Travisano, Apicella capped off the drive by finding sophomore tight end Brian Kowalczyk for a 8-yard touchdown, making it consecutive weeks in which the duo managed to get in the end zone together.
With TCNJ now clinging to a 17-14 lead, the Red Hawks took over at the 3:32 mark. On third and ten at the TCNJ 40-yard line following two incompletions, Apicella dumped the ball off to running back Willie Barr who exploded for 40-yards all the way to the endzone for the decisive touchdown, giving the Red Hawks a 21-17 lead.
Finally holding the advantage on the scoreboard, the Red Hawks relied on their hardened defense to stand tall during crunch time and the unit answered the call. Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions were threatening as they marched down the field, appearing to be destined for the go-ahead score. But on a first and ten from Montclair State’s 15-yard line, junior defensive back Dylan Elliot intercepted Osler’s toss to the end zone, corralling it down to the ground for a touchback. On their next drive, the Red Hawks went three-and-out. With TCNJ not being able to muster any points on their drive, the Red Hawks focused on running the ball in efforts to chew up as much time as possible before junior kicker Hunter Daly punted to the TCNJ 32-yard line with the game boiling down to TCNJ’s drive with 5:13 remaining.
TCNJ’s quarterback Osler opened up the drive connecting with his favorite target, wide receiver Koenig, three plays in a row, reaching the Red Hawks 21-yard line. After Osler used his legs, rushing for one yard to pick up a fresh set of downs, the Red Hawks’ defensive unit’s front seven bore down and generated tremendous pressure as junior defensive lineman Jake Weber swallowed up Osler on a sack for a loss of eight yards. On the next play, senior linebacker and defensive captain Joshua Betts got to Osler and wrestled him to the dirt for a loss of seven yards but the play was thwarted by an offsides penalty on Weber, the previous play’s hero, pushing the ball up to the Red Hawks’ 22-yard line.
Osler failed to complete a pass to Koenig on the next down before botching a snap on third and 13, fumbling for a loss of six yards. Faced with a fourth and 19 do or die situation at Montclair State’s 28 yard-line, TCNJ’s Osler desperately heaved the ball towards the end zone where Junior defensive back Dylan Elliot hawked his would be second interception on the day. But, due to another offsides penalty on Weber’s behalf, the Lions were granted one last shot. TCNJ elected to use one of their two remaining timeouts with 1:33 left in regulation. With the game on the wire, Osler forced a throw at the Montclair State 10-yard line that was picked off by Senior defensive back Jabari Ray Garvin, sealing the deal on a thrilling Red Hawk victory.
The Red Hawks improved 3-2 on their 2017 campaign and 3-1 in NJAC competition. The Red Hawks sit in fourth place in the NJAC standings as they continue to find ways to pull out victories in tight battles. The Red Hawks will have the opportunity to gain major ground within the next three weeks as they will clash with the top three teams in the conference sequentially. It’s Homecoming this Saturday, Oct.14, at 2 p.m. as the Red Hawks engage in their toughest test yet against the 4-1 Seagulls of Salisbury University.