By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School football team sure has a flair for the dramatic.
After posting a pair of victories in games that were decided late in the fourth quarter or overtime late last season, the Panthers did the same to open their 2021 campaign.
A comeback from a 14-3 third-quarter deficit and a pair of defensive stands inside its own 10-yard line in the fourth quarter allowed Middle to come away with a 15-14 win over Bridgeton in a wildly entertaining contest at Memorial Field.
“This is a really, really big win for us,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said.
Trailing 14-3 after Bridgeton’s Ed Gravely scored on a 29-yard run on the opening possession of the second half, Middle needed just six plays to go 71 yards to respond. Runs of 18 and 22 yards by Isiah Carr-Wing helped set up Brett Nabb’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Michael Zarfati, making the score 14-9.
Bridgeton lost its third fumble of the game three plays later and Nabb ran in from eight yards out to finish a six-play, 39-yard drive late in the third quarter to give Middle the lead for good. Nabb also had rushes of nine, 23 and 16 yards on the drive, which was made longer by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Middle.
Middle executed its two third-quarter scoring drives after earning just three first downs in the opening half. After gaining only 12 yards on four carries in the first half, Nabb ran 10 times for 94 yards after halftime.
“We were able to make some adjustments because the kids we have are very attentive, probably as attentive as any group we’ve had,” Riggitano said. “Our quarterback is a very, very good runner and when we can create that deception where it looks like we’re going one way and then he goes and runs the other, it can be tough to defend.”
Bridgeton appeared poised to retake the lead on its next possession. The Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. Their next three plays took them inside the 1-yard line for a fourth-down play. But Nabb, Carr-Wing and David Giulian crashed through the Bridgeton offensive line and stopped the Bulldogs’ Jermaine Bell for a three-yard loss on the play.
Bridgeton again drove inside the 10-yard line on its final possession but had a touchdown run negated by a holding penalty. A fourth-down heave toward the end zone was incomplete when the Bulldog receiver caught the ball out of bounds, well beyond the back of the end zone.
Middle took over on downs with 2:35 to play and a handful of running plays by Giulian and Nabb effectively ran out the clock.
Jerome Licata kicked a 30-yard field goal to account for Middle’s first-half points. He also came up with a key tackle on a two-point conversion try after Bridgeton’s first touchdown late in the first half.
Matt Frame, Marco Salgado and Danny Brown each recovered Bridgeton fumbles. Zarafti caught three passes for 96 yards for Middle.
Gravely ran 15 times for 127 yards and a score for Bridgeton.
Middle’s victory over the Group IV Bulldogs could go a long way toward helping the team qualify for the Group II playoffs.
“We’ve been down this road before, where we’ve beaten bigger schools like Mainland and Steinert early in the season and then we’d sub our toe down the road, so nothing’s a given, especially after just one game,” Riggitano said. “But this is a very, very good win over a really good team that sets us up for an opportunity to be in the mix for the playoffs. But it’s also just one game. We have to build on this and continue to get better.”
Middle, which avenged a 25-7 loss to the Bulldogs from last season, travels to Schalick next Friday.