Montclair High football comeback falls short in 35-21 loss to West Orange
BY ANDREW GARDA
WEST ORANGE — Every decision has consequences. After their 35-21 loss to West Orange (5-2, 4-1 SFC-Freedom Red) on Friday, Oct. 15, the consequences of some decisions the Montclair Mounties (3-4, 3-2 SFC-Freedom Red) made prior to and during the game were clear, while the impact of others is a bit less defined.
In terms of short-term impact, head coach Pete Ramiccio felt his decision to kick the ball to dynamic Mountaineer running back Makhi Green not once but twice, resulting in big returns, is one he would like back, especially late in the third quarter, after Montclair had pulled to within a touchdown of the Mountaineers.
“I’ll take the hit on that one, I should have kept it on the ground,” Ramiccio said. The Mounties opted for an onside kick earlier, which kicker Gage Hammond recovered, but when Justin Bernal scored with 7:03 left in the fourth quarter, they kicked away.
For the second time in the game, Green took it to the house. While the touchdown was negated by a West Orange penalty as the result of a cheap shot at Hammond, the return still put them deep in Montclair territory, and they were able to convert.
This was the second hit Hammond has taken while playing West Orange that was flagged and definitely penalty-worthy, the first occurring when he was a freshman and the teams met to open the season at Rutgers.
He was just one of several Mounties who found themselves the targets of helmet-to-helmet hits, two of which resulted in a player being forced from the game.
While the loss to the Mountaineers — the third to West Orange in a row — was disappointing, there were some positive takeaways.
With the ground game more thunder than lightning, freshman Ja-khi Chance was given some carries late in the game and brought some pop to the backfield. Bernal and Jordan Williams do well grinding out the tough yards, but Chance might give Montclair some speed to get to the edge and turn the corner.
David Thom-Rogers had a couple of very nice catches, including a toe-tapping touchdown on a fade route to the corner of the end zone, and ended the night with three catches for 32 yards and that score on eight targets.
The most watched player was Drew Pfeifer, who replaced Solomon Brennan under center as starting quarterback. The move was met with mixed reviews from the crowd before the game and will likely be the center of a discussion going forward if the cries of a few adults in the crowd are anything to go by, but for the most part Pfeifer didn’t look like a player for whom the moment was too big.
There absolutely were growing pains, such as the interception he threw when targeting Maverick Selementi in the second half when he threw to a spot his receiver had already vacated. Pfeifer also threw too hard on a pair of passes that would have resulted in big gains — one of which would have been a touchdown — had he thrown the ball with touch.
He can make those throws, because he made them earlier in the game, including on his touchdown pass to Thom-Rodgers early in the second quarter to tie the game at 7.
Thom-Rodgers ran a nice corner fade route and was pretty much alone when Pfeifer delivered the ball, dropping it perfectly in the bucket for his receiver, who tapped in both toes to be sure he stayed inbounds as he made the catch.
Pfeifer also showed an adeptness with the read option late in the game, pulling the ball from his running backs and scrambling for big gains.
Overall, he looked poised and calm in the pocket and had a short memory after his interception, jumping right back into things as if it hadn’t happened, something every quarterback needs to do.
He didn’t get rattled, he didn’t get overwhelmed, and he got better as the game went on. It’s a good sign for Montclair both this year and for the next two seasons, Pfeifer’s junior and senior years.
Ultimately, the problem remains twofold for Montclair.
First, the offensive line. There are some good pieces there, but as it did when Brennan was under center, it allowed too much pressure on the quarterback too often. It’s still not opening up holes and clearing lanes for the backfield either. Williams and Bernal are good backs, but they are often runners who take what the line creates rather than pulling yards out of thin air, something MHS fans were used to seeing with the likes of Danny Webb or Josh Crawford in the backfield. That’s not a knock on either Bernal or Williams — the Mounties have bruising backs, but not a speedy dynamo.
So when the line doesn’t give the backfield a lane to run in, when Bernal or Williams can’t get a head of steam going, when they are hit in the backfield, the ball doesn’t move.
Secondly, there are simply too many inexcusable drops by receivers. This plagued Brennan, and it was the same for Pfeifer Friday night. Interceptions by both quarterbacks is an issue, but the bigger problem is drops on sure-fire completions.
Back on the plus side, Montclair could have folded its tents and gone home when Green had back-to-back touchdowns — a 99-yard kickoff return and then an 86-yard run — but instead fought back, generating a nice drive that Pfeifer capped with a 5-yard run, and then another score on a run by Bernal.
Montclair also, for the most part, remained composed, even with the hit on Hammond and another on Isaiah Holm, plus some frustrating missed calls by the officials.
“I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t fight [West Orange], proud of the fact that we fell behind 21 points and we kept coming after them and coming after them and we kept playing our game,” Ramiccio said. “We just couldn’t finish it.”
Livingston, this coming Friday night, is obviously a critical game for Montclair, which dropped a spot in the United Power Rankings on GridironNewJersey.com for North, Group 5 and, ironically if the season ended today, would put them up against West Orange again in the first round of the state tournament.
“Every game is important, but they get more important as you get deeper into the season,” Ramiccio said. “We’re not promised anything right now, and we need to come out in full force next Friday night and take care of business because we’re not where we need to be.”