by Andrew Garda

EAST ORANGE—The Montclair High School football team’s offensive woes continued against East Orange on Saturday, Sept. 28, as the Jaguars scored a pair of touchdowns three minutes apart early in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 26-6 victory.

It was the second time this year that the Mounties (1-3, 1-2 Super Football Conference-Liberty Blue) have been held to six total points, the other the Aug. 30 defeat to West Orange.

Jordan Diggs had a strong day running the ball, leading the offensive charge with 27 carries for 165 yards, but Montclair missed two big red-zone opportunities and committed two crucial turnovers to swing the game.

Both turnovers were fumbles directly off of center-quarterback exchanges, a consistent problem throughout the day — the Mounties also had a fumbled snap that they recovered on the goal line early in the fourth quarter, trailing 20-6.

“I’ve got a senior center and a junior quarterback, so out of all the group, that shouldn’t happen,” Fiore said. “But we had how many today, four? One of them on a turnover, one at the 2-yard line [as we’re] going in. Take those two snaps away and we’re in a football game.”

The turnover Fiore referred to came late in the third quarter, one play after linebacker Nareece Wright stripped East Orange quarterback Nasir Montgomery and Shawn Collins recovered the ensuing fumble. At that point, the Mounties were set up with field possession near midfield, trailing just 14-6.

But a bobbled snap was recovered by the Jaguars (4-0, 2-0) on the very next play.

“We got them to turn it over in the second half, and it’s 14-6,” Fiore said. “We can’t fumble the first snap of that drive. If we go down and do what we’re supposed to do there, we’re in a 14-12 or 14-14 game. Then all the pressure’s on them. If we get them in a pressurized situation, they’re going to make more mistakes. We didn’t do that because we just turned it over.”

East Orange didn’t score immediately off that fumble, but the Jaguars won the field position battle — punter Sharif Bryan had a big impact, pinning Montclair inside its own 20-yard-line on three of East Orange’s six punts. That set up a short touchdown drive capped by Matthew Ziao’s six-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Trailing now 20-6, Montclair quickly moved deep into EO territory behind Diggs and a long run from quarterback Michael Robinson, only to see the drive stall on a fourth-down incompletion inside the Jaguars’ 5.

MHS Senior captain Nareece Wright - shown here in 2018 - was one of the bright spots on defense for the Mounties.
MHS Senior captain Nareece Wright - shown here in 2018 - was one of the bright spots on defense for the Mounties.

The Mounties’ defense had been excellent throughout the day — East Orange caught the MHS defense out of position on the first play of the game  for a 55-yard touchdown, but then gained only 78 yards of total offense on their next 35 plays.

Defensively, the Mounties were paced by the senior middle linebacker Wright, who had perhaps his best game of the season with a game-high 15 tackles, 3.5 of those for a loss, including two sacks and a forced fumble. 

But backed up against their own goal line, East Orange finally managed to spring loose for a big play, as Ziao sprinted around the left side of the line and ran untouched 96 yards to clinch East Orange’s first victory over Montclair since 2010.

On the bright side of the Mounties was Diggs’ effort, the junior tailback’s third consecutive 100-yard game. Diggs was explosive at the line of scrimmage, as he always is, but showed some excellent athleticism and slipperiness in space after getting to the second level.

Fiore said he wasn’t surprised.

“Jordan is a football player,” he said.

Sophomore Jordan Williams, who normally shares in the carries, was dealing with a banged-up thumb, giving Diggs nearly the entirety of the ball-carrying work.

“He’s a good football player. And we’ve got him back next year, we’ve got [Williams], and four of these offensive linemen that are playing right now are going to come back next year,” he said.

That’s something to build on, and with the 1-3 record and some tough games ahead of them, the Mounties have to think about the future.

What does that mean? Fiore didn’t mince words.

“From here on out the best player plays,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re a senior, junior or sophomore. The best player plays. If we were 3-1, and it was tied [between two players], it goes to the senior. But at 1-3, if it’s tied it goes to the underclassmen.”

MHS will do that while also trying to win games, because they aren’t dead in the water yet in terms of qualifying for the state playoffs and achieving their goals.

The Mounties return home to Woodman Field this Saturday, Oct. 5, to play a surprising Columbia team that opened the season 3-0 before suffering its first defeat against West Orange over the weekend. The Cougars hadn’t won more than one game in a season since 2015.

Kickoff for Saturday’s game will be at 2:30 p.m., as it is an SAT testing date.

A big test against Seton Hall Prep follows next weekend, Oct. 12.

“We’ve got a winnable game against Columbia,” Fiore said. “They’re doing a good job and they’ve got three wins. It’s a big power-point game for us. The week after that we get a ton of power-points no matter what. Seton Hall’s a lot better than they have been; they ain’t going to make mistakes. We’re going to have to do some special stuff to beat them.”

As Fiore has said a lot this year, this is a very young team, and one prone to the mistakes that come with it. While that is very true, at some point the younger players have to find a way to step up and show they are learning from these setbacks.

Every loss may be a lesson, but at some point you have to put those lessons into practice.