by Andrew Garda

Junior quarterback Michael Robinson despaired as he walked off the field after throwing what appeared to be a back-breaking interception with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter of the Montclair High School football team’s regular season finale Saturday, Nov. 2, at Woodman Field.

The Mounties trailed Irvington by four points, and with only two timeouts remaining, that turnover — Montclair’s fourth of the game — appeared to seal their fate.

Head coach John Fiore made a beeline to Robinson as he walked off the field, and had a more positive message.

“We’re going to get the ball back,” he said. “And we’re going to score.”

A quick three-and-out by Irvington and a very short punt did give Robinson the ball back inside Blue Knights territory with under a minute to play, and the Mountie signal-caller made his second chance count.

Robinson fired a lightning bolt to senior tight end Shawn Collins between three defenders for a 16-yard touchdown with four seconds remaining to lift Montclair to a 24-21 win over the Blue Knights in one of the most thrilling games to be played at Woodman in some time.

“I’m just so proud of Michael, to make that comeback, and do what they just did. The resilience, it’s awesome,” Fiore said. “[And Collins] is a big-time player, that was a big-time moment. Rutgers is getting an unbelievable prospect, an unbelievable player, and more importantly, just a great kid and an unbelievable family.”

Junior quarterback Michael Robinson, center, threw for exactly 150 yards and three touchdowns for the second straight game.
Junior quarterback Michael Robinson, center, threw for exactly 150 yards and three touchdowns for the second straight game.

The Mounties (5-4) learned on Sunday that they are the No. 6 seed in the NJSIAA North 1, Group V state playoffs, which get underway this weekend. Montclair will visit third-seeded East Orange (7-1) in the sectional quarterfinals this Saturday, Nov. 9, 1 p.m., at Robeson Stadium in East Orange.

But at least on Saturday, the Mounties could bask in the glow of their come-from-behind Senior Day victory, keyed by a brilliant throw and catch.

The game-winner was the second time in the game that Collins, a Rutgers commit, made a tough catch look easy, this time helping his quarterback get a little redemption.

“Mike is my brother, we talk every day,” Collins said. “I told him if it comes down to that situation, I’m saying look, ‘I’m 6’5, D-1, just throw me the ball. I’m going to be open, I’m gonna catch the ball.’”

On the play, Collins lined up in the slot and ran a post route inside of the defensive back covering him. Robinson fired a perfect strike just over the oustretched arms of a trailing linebacker, just before a safety could make a play on the ball.

“It was my option to figure out where I was going,” Robinson said. “I’d seen the linebacker come down, so I gave Shawn a shot. And he’s a Rutgers commit for a reason and I’m so proud of him.”

Robinson had a solid game overall, throwing for 150 yards and 3 touchdowns for the second straight week. He also led the Mounties in rushing with 67 yards on 15 tough carries.

Collins was equally impressive on both sides of the ball, finishing with three catches for 71 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while showing his playmaking ability as a defensive end, where he came up with five tackles and two key sacks at important moments. His first sack, which came with 5:01 left in the first quarter, showed off his agility and athleticism with a big spin move that left the offensive tackle in the dust.

“That’s about film,” Collins said. “I already knew they subbed the first tackle out. He wasn’t doing anything, and they subbed a second tackle in. And every play he’s widening out. So, all I did was hit him with a spin move, came clean and got the sack. The quarterback was scared, he didn’t know what to do.”

Saturday’s win was Montclair’s finest defensive effort of the season, as the Mounties limited a bigger, possibly faster Irvington (6-3) team to just 153 yards of total offense.

That was a big contrast to the teams’ most recent meeting in October of last year, when the Blue Knights ran up 414 yards of offense en route to a 34-21 win.

Irvington’s only offensive drive of note resulted in their first touchdown of the game, as running back Zakee Swann broke off a pair of big runs to set up Al-Jay Henderson’s 4-yard score with 9:27 remaining in the first half.

Montclair responded with a methodical six-minute touchdown drive of its own, aided by two crucial Irvington penalties — the Blue Knights would be flagged an astonishing 20 times for 164 yards in the game, extending several Mountie drives and snuffing out promising Irvington possessions.

But it took a spectacular play from Robinson and Collins, who connected for a 36-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-28 to even the score at 7 apiece.

The deadlock remained until the middle of the third quarter, when Irvington’s Justice Calloway intercepted a Robinson pass and returned it 59 yards inside the Mountie red zone.

On the next snap, Taiyon Battle ran 15 yards to paydirt to restore Irvington’s lead at 14-7.

To that point, Irvington had been able to contain the Mounties’ running game thanks to their overall team speed, which prevented Robinson or Jordan Diggs from running outside the tackle box.

Diggs was limited to just 21 yards on 15 tough carries, the first time the junior standout had been held under 100 yards rushing since Oct. 5.

So Fiore switched things up a bit, calling on senior running back Nate Bryan. He gave the Mountie offense a different look, and perhaps a little more straight-ahead speed, and he immediately began to carve up the Blue Knights defense.

He had runs of 12 and 10 yards on his first two carries on back-to-back plays late in the third quarter.

MHS senior receiver Donovin Bell finishes in the end zone during Montclair's exciting 24-21 win against Irvington.
MHS senior receiver Donovin Bell finishes in the end zone during Montclair's exciting 24-21 win against Irvington.

Those carries were immediately followed up by one of Robinson’s best passes of the season, a 23-yard fade to Donovin Bell in the corner of the end zone, to tie the score at 14-14 with 1:54 left in the third.

The next time the Mounties had the ball, they mounted an epic 11-play, six-and-a-half minute drive that ended with freshman kicker booting a 28-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead with 6:20 remaining in the fourth.

Disaster appeared to have struck on the ensuing kickoff, as Zahir Swann returned it 80 yards for a touchdown. However, referees called a holding penalty and brought the ball back, the second Irvington special teams touchdown to have been nullified by a penalty.

Starting from the Montclair 38-yard line, the Mountie defense came within a whisker of stopping the Blue Knights. But Zakir Swann wriggled free of a tackle in the backfield on 4th-and-2 and managed to just dive past the first down marker. Irvington scored two plays later on Henderson’s second short touchdown run of the game with 3:38 left.

Montclair had the ball near midfield on its next drive, which ended in Robinson trying to make a play on the run, only for his pass to Bell to sail over the receiver’s head and into the arms of Calloway, the Irvington safety.

However, the MHS defense held once again, forcing a punt with 1:06 to play, and fortunately for them, the punt traveled just three yards, giving the Mounties excellent field position at the Irvington 37.

Collins was called on again to make a big play, hauling in a 19-yard pass on 4th-and-8 from the 35 with 22 seconds left, setting up the eventual game-winning touchdown two plays later.

It was the first time Montclair had scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter since 2010, when Nate Crutchfield hit Khalif Herbin on a 65-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game in Fiore’s very first game in charge of the Mountie program.

“Today wasn’t our best game, we still have work to do,” Robinson added. “But the fight we showed today, it’s unbelievable, and I’m so proud of my teammates for doing it and having my back.”

Now, MHS turns its focus to its archrival East Orange, as the teams prepare to play each other in the playoffs for just the fourth time ever.

The Jaguars dealt Montclair a 26-6 loss back on Sept. 28, though it was closer than the score indicates; the Mounties had the ball down a touchdown late in the third quarter before things unraveled.

The teams haven’t met in the playoffs since the 2007 North 1, Group IV championship game, a 31-13 East Orange victory. Montclair won the other two playoff meetings, a 3-0 semifinal win in 1983 and an 8-6 semifinal win in 1985.