At 6-1, Making State Playoffs Still Not a Guarantee for Southern Regional Football Team

By David Biggy | Oct 23, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern’s Will DeVane returns the ensuring kickoff after Freehold Township tied the game on Oct. 19, setting up the Rams’ game-winning touchdown during a 14-7 victory.

Stafford Township — Not too many years ago, a football team that went 6-1 through its first seven games and lost to one of the top-rated teams in its section by only five points could feel good about its potential for making the NJSIAA playoffs. But those days have changed, and since the state athletic association rolled in a new power-point system last year, the uncertainty it has created for most teams is mind-boggling.

“Right now, we keep telling our players we have to keep winning football games,” said Southern Regional head coach Chuck Donohue Sr., whose Rams scored a 14-7 victory over Freehold Township on Oct. 19 to finish an undefeated 5-0 in the Shore Conference Constitution division a week after clinching the title.

“At this time of the year, the kids are checking their computers and phones to see where we stand, and everybody is talking playoffs now. But – and this is where the ‘but’ comes into the picture – even at 6-1, and even if we keep winning, there’s no guarantee we’re making the playoffs.”

Prior to their contest with the Patriots, the Rams were ranked fifth in NJSIAA South Jersey Group V. Despite their victory on Saturday, come Monday Southern was eighth, according to the United Power Rankings. Welcome to the state-playoff picture in New Jersey.

A few years back, two games before the qualification cutoff date, coaches were able to get a reasonably good idea whether their teams were safe to make the playoffs or still on the bubble. That’s no longer the case.

Coupled with the fact the United Power Ranking seems to have a much more convoluted way of being calculated, the NJSIAA made a lot of adjustments to the state sections – with teams that used to be in Central Jersey sections now in South Jersey sections because the NJSIAA has gone to an only North-South model. In Southern’s section, North Brunswick, Hillsborough, Old Bridge and Manalapan are just a few examples of such changes.

“It’s a strange system, and nobody really understands it,” Donohue said. “The bottom line is we have to keep getting better to be ready for the playoffs, and in our next two games, against St. John Vianney and Central, we’re going to have to play really well to win.”

That’s what the Rams didn’t do on Saturday, as they struggled to move the ball on offense despite a Freehold Township squad that entered the game 2-4.

“They did some things on defense we weren’t ready for,” said quarterback Cole Robinson, who completed eight of 14 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. “They changed some things with their defensive formation and we had prepared for a different defense, so it took us some time to figure it out, and we really couldn’t move the ball much, especially in the first quarter.”

After an interception by Will DeVane put Southern on Freehold’s 30-yard line with 7:35 left in the first quarter, the Rams worked down to the 7 before they stalled out. Following a scoreless first quarter, Southern’s second possession of the second looked promising, as the Rams started on their own 22 and marched to the Patriots’ 35. An interception cut that drive short with 2:39 left in the half.

It wasn’t until 13 seconds remained in the half that Southern struck for its first score. Starting on Freehold’s 44-yard line, Robinson spiked the ball to stop the clock at the 31 four plays later. On the next play, Jaiden Brown ran to the right side, received a great block from DeVane and raced down the sideline for a touchdown. Hank Gallacher’s point-after kick made it 7-0 at the half.

After Southern fumbled the ball away on its first two possessions of the second half, the Patriots eventually tied the game with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. DeVane answered on the ensuing kickoff, running the ball back to Freehold’s 31-yard line. Four plays later – 11 seconds into the fourth quarter – Robinson plunged into the end zone on a quarterback sneak after he had completed a 10-yard pass to DeVane on first-and-10 from the 11. Gallacher’s second PAT again made it a seven-point game.

“I felt like a major problem today was we were coming in too high from last week, after winning the division championship,” DeVane said. “We came in thinking it would be an easy game, and we took it lightly. So things were shaky for a while and we needed to wake up. My kickoff return came at the right time.”

The defense took care of the rest. On Freehold Townhip’s next possession, the Rams didn’t give much to the Patriots before registering three straight sacks to force a punt on their second possession of the quarter. Southern then ran out the final 2:15 to seal the victory.

Brown finished with 79 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving to lead the offense, which accumulated 194 yards in total. Fortunately, the Southern defense held Freehold to just 106 yards of offense, tallying six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.

“The kickoff return was huge, and our pass rush, particularly in the fourth quarter, was dominating in the second half and forced them into situations where they couldn’t run the ball,” Donohue said. “But we have to play much better than that to achieve the goals we want to achieve the rest of the way.”

— David Biggy

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