by Kevin Meachem

Like most punt returners, Daniel Webb doesn’t typically have a lot of time to think about what he’s going to do when he catches the ball, how he’ll avoid the opponents speeding directly at him. But what the Montclair High School senior does have is his innate, instinctual feel for the game, and it’s why he’s one of the most dangerous home-run threats in all of New Jersey.

Illustrating that perfectly was a sequence midway through the first quarter in Saturday’s NJSIAA North 1, Group V quarterfinal blowout victory over  Livingston at Woodman Field. Webb caught a punt at his own 32-yard line with a Lancer defender bearing down on him. Suddenly, Webb stuttered, shaking the first man. After a few yards, he was forced into a little two-step, a feint towards the right sideline before a hard-cut inside, to eliminate the threat from tackler No. 2. Then, following a crushing block by Willie Matthews that gave him enough room to maneuver, Webb spun away from two more tackles while simultaneously using his considerable strength to stiff-arm a fifth defender.

Webb’s bewildering combination of technical ability and footwork, his instinctual understanding and feel for the game, and his athletic ability has done the hard work on this play. Now all that’s left is to simply sprint around the block of Elias Ottens and through the disorganized, dispersed coverage unit to find the end zone; very few players have done that as often as Webb has during his sterling four years in Mountie blue.

The 68-yard return was the finest of the star senior’s six touchdowns (four rushing, two punt returns) as the top-seeded Mounties bludgeoned Livingston, 63-6, Saturday at Woodman Field.

“Credit to the guys blocking for me, they did a great job,” Webb said. “And credit to [quarterback] Tarrin Earle for making the right reads. It’s always a team effort when we have games like this.”

Top-seeded MHS (9-0) will now gear up for a familiar foe in the semifinal round this Saturday when Ridgewood comes to Woodman for a 1 p.m. kickoff. The fifth-seeded Maroons (8-2) have knocked MHS out of the playoffs in the semifinal round each of the last two seasons.

Montclair has yet to be truly tested this season, and Saturday against Livingston was no exception. MHS dominated in all facets, scoring touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams on its way to setting a school record for points in a playoff game.

The typically prolific Mountie offense managed just 242 total yards, in large part because of the spectacular field position they enjoyed all game; all but two Mountie possessions began in Livingston territory.

The Mountie defense had another dominant effort, led by star linebacker Willie Matthews (a game-high 11 tackles), cornerback Tysean Williams (interception, two pass deflections) and defensive tackle Kahreem Paul (2 interceptions, one returned for a TD).

Kahreem Paul runs towards the end zone on the first of his two interceptions Saturday.
Kahreem Paul runs towards the end zone on the first of his two interceptions Saturday.

“Other than a couple things, we played flawlessly,” head coach John Fiore said. “There’s always things we need to clean up. But this is a special group that’s capable of some real special things if we stay focused.”

One of the Lancers’ few highlights came prior to the opening kickoff, when visitors carried their flag to the Montclair 50-yard-line and stuck it in the center of the Mountie ‘M’.

If the display was meant to send a message to the MHS sideline, it backfired instantly and with gusto.  The Mounties rolled up a 42-0 lead after only 12 minutes and 40 seconds of game time, having run a total of 11 offensive plays.

“They can do what they want, I guess,” Matthews said. “They were stretching on our ‘M’ before the game, too. We just had to come and show them that you don’t do that.”

After Webb opened the scoring on a 30-yard run on Montclair’s first offensive play, Livingston (5-4-1) turned the ball over on downs at its own 40-yard-line. Webb then added his second touchdown, a 22-yard scamper down the right sideline, two plays after that. The 68-yard Webb punt return made it 21-0 after less than seven minutes of game time.

Montclair’s next drive was its only drive of any length in the first quarter, a six-play, 29-yard march that ended with quarterback Tarrin Earle finding receiver Charles Murphy on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for a 28-0 lead.

Webb added his fourth touchdown of the quarter, a one-yard plunge, one play after Paul’s first interception of the day.

The scoring barrage finally ended less than a minute into the second quarter, when Webb effortlessly zipped through would-be Livingston tacklers on his second punt return, a 53-yarder.

From there, the result was academic, the only question the final margin.

An Earle quarterback sneak extended the lead to 49-0 late in the second quarter before Livingston cashed in on a nice drive just before halftime to cut the deficit to 49-6.

The Mounties’ first-string offense, having only run 21 plays in the first half, opened the third quarter with a methodical nine-play drive capped by a short Webb touchdown run. That drive was keyed by the running of halfback Josh Crawford, as well as by a 29-yard pass from Earle to DJ Williams on a 4th-and-4.

Webb’s final touchdown of the day was the 63rd of his career, just seven shy of the school record set by 2012 alum Khalif Herbin.

Paul then intercepted his second pass of the game, stepping in front of a middle screen and sprinting 15 yards for the pick-six to provide the final margin.