Ridgewood repeats as section champ by Matt Cohen special to northjerseysports.com
RIDGEWOOD — On first glance there isn’t anything flashy about the Ridgewood defense. They’re not blessed with intimidating size or blazing speed and its not a collection of players poised to play major college football in the years to come.
Even so, the Maroons defense once again came up big when they needed it the most.
Facing a Passaic Tech squad, which has gashed opponents on the ground in recent weeks, Ridgewood proved more than up to the task, showing why it’s one of the best defenses in North Jersey in a 10-7 victory to repeat as North 1, Group 5 champions.
“Our defense, in my opinion is one of the best in the league,” junior defensive tackle Ryder Langsdale said. “We’re well-coached, disciplined and just flat out play well.”
By just about any statistical measure, that Maroon defense didn’t just “play well” it dominated. It recorded six sacks, yielded just nine first downs all night and, as a team, Ridgewood forced five turnovers. The last of those came when Langsdale forced a fumble that senior Luke Otterstedt recovered at midfield, near the Maroons sideline with 10 seconds remaining.
“We knew they were going to give us a bunch of looks, but we stuck with what we knew. Bend, don’t break,” said linebacker Cameron Smith, who rushed up the middle, forcing PCT QB Jayden Hunt to roll out left and get hit by Langsdlae on the game-deciding play. “The defense, especially, has always been super tough. That’s just how we play. That’s Ridgewood football.
“The best part of our defense is that everybody’s making plays. That’s what coach said. In order to win this game, everyone’s gotta make plays, not just one of us. We all gotta do it. This is 100-percent a team effort.”
Seemingly everyone on that defense made at least one big big play in the effort. Jack Wittmaack, who became the school’s career leader in tackles, recovered a fumble as did defensive tackle Andrew Messineo. Otterstedt recorded two sacks.
“We definitely played better defense,” Langsdale said, comparing Friday’s win to their 17-14 win over PCT on Sept. 27. Last time around, they came back in the fourth quarter. We couldn’t let them do that again.”
An equally-strong Passaic Tech defensive effort led by David Smith, Jimmy Agresta and Jawuan Carter overcame poor field position and limited Ridgewood to just a field goal after Liam Tarleton’s 36-yard TD run just 2:32 into the game.
Seven times, Ridgewood got the football in PCT territory, but only had three points to show for it – a Ryan Chmiel field goal set up by Tommy Bourque’s 31-yard punt return to the 6.
The Bulldogs’ offense, which had just 82 total yards over the first three quarters, started to come alive in the fourth. Hunt found Jaheim McGuire for a 39-yard pass on 4th-and-3 to extend a drive, which Hunt completed with a 1-yard score with 5:21 remaining.
Despite a 30-yard run from Gabe Santiago (18-for-110 rushing), Ridgewood’s ensuing drive stalled at the 47, forcing a punt and one last chance for the PCT offense, at the 16 with 1:28 left.
Hunt bounced back from a Smith sack to find McGuire for a 16-yard third down conversion. Two plays later, his 18-yard scramble brought the ball to the Ridgewood 46 with 28.8 seconds remaining. Passaic Tech got no closer as an incomplete pass followed, then Langsdale’s clinching strip sack.
“Our defense knew we needed to step up on every drive and I told them that on every drive,” Wittmaack said. “We just fought every, single drive.”
It was a defensive performance that reminded Wittmaack and Messineo of what longtime head coach Chuck Johnson told them back in the summer. With eight starters back from last year’s N1G5 title team, Johnson believed that this group had the potential to be the best defense he’s had in his 36 years as Ridgewood’s head coach.
Johnson wasn’t on hand to enjoy the Maroons’ victory, as he recovers from an illness and infection that has forced him to undergo multiple surgeries and miss the last six games. In the interim, assistant Dave Cord has run the team, which has fulfilled its early season promise.
“It’s been really tough on the whole team, but we’ve pushed through it,” Messineo said. Coach Cord, everyone respects him. He’s a really good coach. We run the same practices and everything. Obviously, we’re playing for Coach J, but Coach Cord has stepped in really nicely.”
Passaic Tech’s Rahmeir McGraw, who entered the game with 1,745 rushing yards, was limited to just 78 on 14 carries. It was the senior’s first game with less than 100 since being held to 35 in PCT’s regular season defeat to Ridgewood.