On a drizzly and dreary homecoming night, the Montclair State University football team had a date with The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). Saturday’s game marked the 86th time that the two New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) rivals have met, which makes it New Jersey College Football’s oldest rivalry going back to 1929.
The Red Hawks came into the game with a 5-0 overall record and a 4-0 record in the conference, but they refused to be satisfied with their early season success and took it to the TCNJ Lions on homecoming night.
Montclair State’s standout wide receiver Kason Campbell missed this game due to an undisclosed injury and that might have slowed down a different Red Hawks offense, but junior quarterback Ja’Quill Burch led this year’s offense with three touchdown passes.
The Red Hawks struck on their opening drive when Burch connected with freshman wide receiver Eric Magnifico for a five-yard pass. The Red Hawks were off to a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter.
The Red Hawks’ running game was effective from the start in this game. Senior Willie Barr, junior Craig Merkle and sophomore Kyle Phipps each played well and managed 166 yards as a group. This wore down the Lions’ defensive line.
In the second quarter, the Red Hawks got the ball on offense and Barr broke off a 16-yard run into Lions’ territory. That was followed by Burch completing a pass to junior wide receiver Stepp Oziegbe that placed the Red Hawks in the red zone. On the next play, Merkle took the ball from Burch and ran it around the left side into the end zone to make it 14-0 Red Hawks.
About a minute before halftime, senior captain linebacker Mauro Altamura intercepted a pass from TCNJ quarterback Dave Jachera and returned it to the 35-yard line. On the ensuing Red Hawks’ drive, Burch found junior tight end Brian Kowalczyk with two throws that moved the Red Hawks close to the end zone. Then, Burch heaved a 17-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Carsen Johnson in the end zone for the Red Hawks’ third score of the night.
The Red Hawks limited the TCNJ offense to just 99 yards during this game while the team gained 362 yards: 171 rushing and 191 passing the ball.
In the third quarter, the Red Hawks’ offense capped off an 83-yard drive when Burch threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to the tight end Kowalczyk.
On the Lions’ next drive, TCNJ quarterback Dave Jachera threw a pass that was intercepted by senior defensive back Dylan Elliott. The Red Hawks were flagged for a pass-interference penalty and that placed the football at the Red Hawks’ 42 yard-line.
On the next four plays, the Lions gained two first downs, setting up a first and goal, where Jachera decided to bulk up and rush straight into the Red Hawks’ defensive line only to fumble the ball at the one-yard line. Red Hawks’ sophomore defensive back Zahir Wilder recovered Jachera’s fumble, which gave the Red Hawks possession with just under a minute left in the third quarter.
The Red Hawks had a comfortable lead for all of the fourth quarter and cruised to their sixth victory on Homecoming night. Burch described the team chemistry behind the Red Hawks’ 5-0 overall record this season.
“Our offensive line is starting to click as a unit,” Burch said. “Willie [Barr] and Merk [Craig Merkle] and Kyle [Phipps] run the ball real well and [our opponents] have to respect us. That gives us a chance to give the ball in the end to our playmakers, who do a good job catching the ball and finishing for us.”
Campbell has been one of the Red Hawks’ most productive players this season on offense and has notched three touchdowns on special teams and offense. In Campbell’s absence, wide receivers Oziegbe, Kowalczyk and Johnson each caught a touchdown pass from Burch, which forged 21 of their team’s 28 points.
Burch discussed what the absence of Campbell means to the Red Hawks at this point in the season.
“It’s next man up, we’re pulling for K [Kason Campbell], but the show must go on,” Burch said. “Stepp [Oziegbe], Brian [Kowalczyk], Carson [Johnson] and Vinny [LoVerde], they stepped up and showed that we can throw the ball without K and that’s big for us.”
At this point, the preseason poll that picked Montclair State to finish near the bottom of the NJAC seems so far away now that the Red Hawks have started their season with a 5-0 overall and 4-0 in-conference record, which is certainly above what NJAC coaches who ranked them in the preseason expected from Montclair State in 2018.
Senior defensive back Dylan Elliott reflected on what this year’s team wants to accomplish.
“We have one long-term goal, to win the NJAC [conference title] obviously, but each week our short-term goal is to win each game,” Elliot said. “We start out 0-0 at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week our goal is to finish 1-0. We carry that over into every week.”
The Red Hawks’ next game will be away in Maryland against Salisbury University. The Sea Gulls improved their overall record to 5-0 after downing Christopher Newport University 27-24 in overtime on Saturday.
The Red Hawks have certainly established a team identity that uses any criticism or slight that comes their way as motivation, but also have the discipline as a team to stay focused on their next challenge and forget about the past.
“The clock hit triple-zero and we’re onto Salisbury,” Burch said. “We just want to be 1-0 at the end of every week.”