by Andrew Garda

PISCATAWAY—In the season opener 12 months ago, the Montclair High School football team struggled in the second half en route to a stunning defeat against West Orange. Saturday night at Rutgers University, the Mounties’ woes began right out of the gate, but the result was the same.

The Mountaineers’ Adonis May returned a fumble 39 yards for a touchdown on Montclair’s first possession of the game, sparking West Orange to a 29-6 win at the “Rumble on the Raritan” showcase event at Rutgers Stadium.

It was a game in which both teams’ defenses outplayed their respective offenses —West Orange gained just 241 total yards, MHS just 186 — but Mountie miscues and some effective passing from Mountaineer quarterback Mason Murdock proved to be the difference.

“We came back [from the early hole], but we just didn’t finish,” said 10th-year head coach John Fiore. “I’m not worried about it. We’ll clean it up. I’m just embarrassed for our fans who came down here, and our community, because we didn’t give them the showing we should have.“

The Mounties will look to get into the win column this Saturday, Sept. 14, when they visit Nutley for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Nutley Oval. The Raiders knocked off Bloomfield, 15-8, in their opener Saturday.

The first costly mistake Saturday night ended a promising opening drive, in which MHS moved into opposing territory after a 22-yard completion from quarterback Michael Robinson to receiver Justin Kirkley.

Two plays later, Robinson turned to throw a screen pass to running back Jordan Diggs, but the throw went over and behind Diggs’ head. That is considered a lateral, not a pass, so it was a live ball when May scooped it up and headed into the end zone.

For Fiore, it was a tough beat that gave the Mountaineers too much energy to start the game.

“It gave them plenty of momentum,” he said. “We had someone miss a block, and Michael threw a lateral which he didn’t do one time in practice this week.”

Later on in the first quarter, the Mounties coughed up the ball again just outside the red zone, stalling another potential scoring drive.

After the teams traded punts for much of the first period, disaster then struck for the Mounties on special teams, when a breakdown in protection allowed May to block a punt, which rolled out of the end zone for a safety and a 9-0 Mountaineer lead.

West Orange then scored its first offensive points of the game early in the second quarter, when Murdock found Jason Raines on a 14-yard touchdown pass, the first of two scoring throws for the quarterback.

Leading 15-0 at halftime, the Mountaineers added two scoring drives in the third quarter to put the game out of reach.

In total, the Mountie defense did a solid job, particularly against the run. Shakhi Carson, who ran for 168 yards and a TD in West Orange’s win in last year’s season opener, was limited to just 48 yards on 16 carries.

“Our defense was lights out,” Fiore said. “They’ve got a Division I back, with all these offers, and he got one [an 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter] up the middle, but the rest of the day he was bogged down.”

But Murdock (16-for-24, 172 yards, 2 TD) had a huge game, finding open receivers and hitting big throws in key moments, including a touchdown pass on a 4th-and-long.

“We’re going to clean up the pass defense, we’re going to get better at doing what we do.”

The Mounties did seem to wear down as the game went along, as the offense was unable to sustain long drives, and often left West Orange with a short field.

Indeed, the offense was the bigger culprit in the loss, never getting into a rhythm and turning over the ball three times.

“Our quarterback didn’t have a great day leading the team and doping things he needs to do,” Fiore said. “Our two senior offensive linemen didn’t do a great job doing what they’re supposed to do. And then all the young kids we thought would make mistakes did.”

The Mountie offense made its share of big mistakes, including three turnovers, and a number of little mistakes, like ill-timed penalties, lining up in wrong positions, running wrong routes, and others.

They are also things which are often the result of youth and inexperience. This is a Mounties team — particularly on offense — with very few returning starters. There are plenty of players with experience on the field, but it's a different weight when you are starting a game.

Robinson did account for the Mounties’ lone touchdown when he executed a perfect fake handoff and scrambled around the right end for an 18-yard score early in the fourth quarter, but any hopes for a miraculous comeback ended when West Orange recovered the ensuing onside kick.