By BRIAN CUNNIFF
MAYS LANDING — There’s no question that the sport of football is a much more offensive game today than it was a couple of decades ago.
But a good old-fashioned defensive battle still breaks out from time to time.
We saw just that Saturday afternoon when Middle Township traveled to Oakcrest.
What seemed at the time to perhaps finish as just a footnote in the contest’s scoring, David Connelly’s 22-yard field goal late in the first quarter held up as the only points as the Falcons edged Middle, 3-0.
For a warm and dry day, the game was played in rather miserable conditions. Oakcrest’s field was a muddy mess thanks to heavy rains that hit the Mays Landing area late in the week. That led to players often losing their footing at key times.
But the defenses were able to shine. Middle held Oakcrest to just those three points despite the Falcons moving the ball inside Middle’s 10-yard line three times. And Oakcrest held Middle to zero points despite the Panthers moving the ball inside Oakcrest’s 15-yard line three times.
Middle certainly had its chances. Karl Giulian’s wonderful catch and run for a 44-yard gain gave the Panthers the ball at the Oakcrest 5-yard line late in the third quarter. But the Panthers were stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
“They were very physical up front,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said of Oakcrest. “We couldn’t get leverage and we couldn’t get the angles we wanted with our blocking. They were flying up on us.”
Later, with about five minutes to play, Middle moved the ball to the Oakcrest 12-yard line but was stopped inches short on fourth down.
After forcing the Falcons to punt just four plays later, Middle moved the ball to the Oakcrest 19-yard line, only to throw an interception in the end zone when the Panthers’ intended receiver slipped on the muddy turf and fell while the ball was in the air.
Middle turned the ball over four times, via three fumbles and an interception, and was also stopped on fourth down three times.
“You can’t win a game with that many turnovers,” Riggitano said. “We haven’t turned the ball over much all year. I know it’s not because they’re not trying because the effort is there. The fact that we had a chance to win after all those turnovers is remarkable. But we got down there twice and didn’t get it in.”
Middle stayed in the game thanks to a wonderful defensive effort. In addition to the three stops inside its own 10-yard line, Middle limited Oakcrest (3-1) to just one first down in the second half, and that came via a penalty with less than a minute to play. The Falcons had just 98 yards of total offense.
“These kids have played very hard all year,” Riggitano said. “They want it bad. They want success as much as the community does and as much as the coaches do. Unfortunately there’s a cloud or something hanging over us. But our kids keep plugging. We had a chance to be successful and win the game and we just didn’t take advantage.”
Middle rushed for just 62 yards on 29 carries as a team. But quarterback R.J. Tozer, playing in place of the injured Cameron Hamer, completed 9 of 17 passes for 122 yards. Giulian caught five balls for 69 yards.
Middle (3-2) has a bye next week before taking on Mainland on Oct. 12.
“We have to learn from this and be ready to go in two weeks,” Riggitano said, “because that game has a chance to be just like this one.”