Considering how rough this season has been for quarterback Ja’Quill Burch and the Montclair State University football team, it’s only fitting that the fifth-year senior captain has his best performance of the season on Senior Day.
“Our team morale was never down,” Burch said. “[The win] is a big confidence booster heading into the rest of conference play, but this team never lost their fight even when we were losing [games].”
Burch recorded 180 passing yards and two touchdowns, completing over 70% of his passes. But more importantly, the Red Hawks claimed their first conference victory in a convincing 20-7 victory over the Rowan University Profs.
It’s no secret the Red Hawk offense has been underwhelming for the majority of the season. While we have seen flashes of how good they can be, fans have been waiting for this unit to showcase their talents for a complete 60 minutes.
And boy, did they put on a show last Saturday.
After a scoreless first quarter for both teams, Montclair State marched down to Rowan’s 17-yard line midway through the second quarter, but a holding penalty backed them up to the 30-yard line.
After junior running back Abellaney Mendez was unable to haul in a pass on second and 23, Burch needed his young receiving core to make a play on third and long. And, they delivered with ease.
A beautiful pass from Burch was caught in by freshman wide receiver Jamie Hamilton, who blew past his defender for a 30-yard touchdown, giving the Red Hawks an early lead. Burch says the team put their faith in Hamilton and were not disappointed.
“We’ve been working on hitting those big plays all season,” Burch said. “When we missed that [pass to Mendez], I told my team that we are good enough to come back to it. We trusted [Hamilton] to make the play and he got it done.”
It wasn’t just the passing attack that was working, but the running game was also on point. Offensive coordinator Steve Sciarappa chose to go with a three-man running back rotation for this game, led by speedy running backs Mendez and sophomore running back Makai Mickens alongside a more physical running back — freshman Dan Ramos, brother of senior linebacker Mike Ramos.
All three running backs gave the Red Hawks a change of pace at the position, as Rowan had a difficult time slowing down a rushing attack that totaled over 200 yards of offense and complemented the passing game perfectly.
Sciarappa says the team’s success boils down to selflessness when playing these games.
“With respect to our running back rotation, the reason why it works is because our [running backs] aren’t selfish,” Sciarappa said. “Of course every [good] player on the team wants the ball every single snap, but great players understand that the guy next to them makes them better. The ability to have fresh legs and eyes as you’re moving throughout the game is really tough to defend against.”
Defensively, the Red Hawks were nearly flawless against one of the better passing attacks in the conference, only allowing a late touchdown in the fourth quarter. Rowan junior quarterback Mike Husni is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference with his dual-threat abilities, but this defense put him through the wringer — five sacks on the junior quarterback as they only allowed 154 yards of offense.
Three of those sacks came from junior defensive lineman Dimitri Pali, who currently is second in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) in sacks with six.
“We know we can keep up with any offense that we face,” Pali said. “Rowan came into this game with only three sacks allowed all year, and I told [our coaches] I wanted to get at least three sacks coming into this game. We had five as a team, so we came prepared.”
After the game, you could see all the graduating seniors embracing each other as well as the rest of the team. Despite these seniors knowing that this will be the last time they’ll be competing at Sprague Field, it was mostly smiling faces among the Red Hawks. Players chose to celebrate the moment by taking pictures with fellow teammates, family and friends.
As for Burch, he’ll be soaking up this moment as much as he can before he focuses on his next challenge: defeating William Paterson University on the road next Saturday.
“I was a little emotional during the [pregame ceremony], and I’ll probably be a little emotional when I go into the locker room,” Burch said. “But when that clock hits triple zeros, our team is moving on to William Paterson.”