Montclair State’s football team trudged through a mountain of mistakes and waged a last-minute comeback on their way to their first home opener victory since 2013. The Red Hawks didn’t play pretty football during their 21-14 win over Rowan University on Saturday, and they didn’t make things easy for themselves. They kept pounding, and they came out on top.
After Montclair State made their comeback, sealed the victory and finished their celebrations, sophomore punter Hunter Daly walked off the field and exclaimed, “What a day to be a Hawk.”
The Red Hawks were ranked sixth in the 2016 New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Preseason Coaches Poll. Rowan was ranked higher, and Montclair State hadn’t beaten the Profs since 2014. Montclair State should have lost on Saturday. The Red Hawks win should put the NJAC on notice — not because they are on par with Salisbury University or because they deserve national attention — but because a young team kept pounding through all four quarters and refused to be killed off.
For those unfamiliar, “Keep Pounding” is a phrase from legendary Montclair State linebacker Sam Mills. The phrase is flown on a large red banner at Sprague Field but, over 600 miles away, a statue of Mills sits outside of Bank of America Stadium — the home of the Carolina Panthers (Mills spent 10 years as a player and coach with the Panthers).
Steph Curry hammering the Keep Pounding drum for the Panthers. pic.twitter.com/UfyWwcaZrc
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) February 7, 2016
Mills was the Panthers’ linebackers coach in 2004 and was in the fifth month of his battle with intestinal cancer. Reports indicate Mills had already lived longer than the doctors expected. Then, before a Panthers’ playoff game in 2004, Mills gathered the players in the locker room. He was quoted in his now-legendary speech as saying, “When I found out I had cancer there were two things I could do: Quit or keep pounding. I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!”
Every Montclair State football player wears a wristband with the words “Keep Pounding.” The Red Hawks have embodied that slogan through their first three games of 2016, and particularly in their win against Rowan on Saturday.
“[Mills] always said, you have to keep pounding, keep going after it, no matter what, good or bad,” Red Hawks Head Coach Rick Giancola said after Saturday’s game. “And, boy, they really lived up to that today.”
Senior running back John DiStefano ran for 53 yards in the first quarter but was kept quiet in the second and third quarters. Still, he punched in the game-winning touchdown and completed the two-point conversion. DiStefano kept pounding.
Freshman quarterback Ryan Adzima was having an abysmal game and threw two interceptions heading into the most important drive of the game. Still, he completed two consecutive passes, scrambled for 11 yards and was the driving force in Montclair State’s game-winning drive. Adzima’s late performance earned him his third straight NJAC Offensive Rookie of the Week award. Adzima kept pounding.
“It makes a statement in the conference,” DiStefano said. “It shows teams that we’re ready to play. I liked how we just didn’t quit.”
Giancola explained that this year’s team is comprised of 52 percent new players, meaning, over half of the team are either freshmen or transfers. There are only seven seniors on the entire football team. Montclair State’s young football team didn’t get discouraged about their mistakes, nor did they collapse or relegate to infighting on the sidelines when the pressure reached worrying levels on Saturday.
All three phases of the team — offense, defense and special teams — kept pounding. The special teams forced a late fumble, the defense forced a crucial three-and-out, the offense scored the game-winning touchdown and the defense sealed the victory with an interception in the game’s waning moments.
“It’s a little scary sometimes to think that all these young guys are in the lineup somewhere,” Giancola said. “To win a game like this, with not having that much maturity, is really a testament to their ability to deal with adversity. I’m really proud of them and I’m really happy that they responded to that challenge that way.”
“Keep Pounding” is a cornerstone philosophy in the Carolina Panthers organization, and it holds equal weight at Montclair State. The Red Hawks still have more than half of the season to go and they will need to prove that they are worthy of being called one of NJAC’s top four of five teams.
They will keep pounding, though, and their next game is on the road against William Paterson University on Oct. 1.