Montclair's quest for perfection came to a stunning and disappointing end on Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium. North Bergen's Sergio Rodriguez connected with Debray Tavarez on a 22-yard touchdown strike as time expired, handing Montclair its first loss of the season while winning the North I Group 4 state sectional championship, 14-13, in a shocking upset.
All season long the Mountie football team looked unbeatable, but the Bruins would not be intimidated by the state's fourth-ranked team, which came in averaging more than 44 points per game.
With 2:09 left to play, North Bergen had one chance to pull off the upset of the day, getting the ball at their own 37-yard-line. Two consecutive penalties, plus an incomplete pass, made the situation even more dire for the Bruins, with a second and 20 from their own 27, and 1:24 left to play.
But North Bergen drove down the field, converting two third downs and a fourth down on a miracle drive which almost ended twice on a pair of dropped Montclair interceptions. With one second left, Rodriguez was able to hustle his team to the line and spike the ball to leave just enough time for one play. He completed the pass to Tavarez in between two Mountie defenders. Tavarez took a big hit in the end-zone, but held onto the ball. It was complete bedlam on the Bruin sideline and a shocked silence on Montclair's.
"It was a gutsy performance.The kids played hard, but a team like that knows how to win at the end ... they've been doing it all year," said Montclair head coach, John Fiore. "We can't let them in, we made some mistakes in a game that, you know what? You can't make those mistakes in a championship game."
Perhaps the game's first play was an ill omen for Montclair, which fumbled the opening kickoff which was recovered by North Bergen at the Mountie 45-yard-line. Thirteen plays later, Eric McMullen ran a counter play into the end zone from four-yards out, giving North Bergen an early 8-0 lead.
Montclair's defense shutout the Bruins for the rest of the half and got a touchdown run and pass from Khalif Herbin to take a 13-8 lead into the break. Herbin ran in the score from eight yards out early in the second quarter and then found Darin Davis on a gorgeous pass in the back corner of the end zone with 2:58 left in the opening half. However, they did not complete the two conversion try, which eventually turned out to be the difference in the game.
That was it for Montclair's offense the rest of the game. The Mounties picked up just 31 yards in the second half and lost the ball on a fumble at the North Bergen 22-yard-line late in the third quarter. The Bruins just kept hanging around until they were able to steal away the win in the end.
Herbin led the way with 129 yards rushing on 21 carries, but left in the fourth quarter with an injury and was on crutches for Montclair's final offensive play. He also threw for 38 yards, but aside from Herbin, no other Mounties had particularly big days on offense.
"Our O-line has been our bread and butter and we just didn't make it happen today," Fiore said.
Defensively, it's hard to complain about the game Montclair played being that they only allowed 14 points and Montclair hadn't been held below 14 since last year's state championship loss to Randolph, when they were shutout. The Mountie defense allowed just 83 yards passing, but did give up 153 yards on the ground, 93 of which went to McMullen.
"The defensive performance was good. But on the first series and the last series we gave up touchdowns and you just can't do that," Fiore said.
For North Bergen, it was their sixth state sectional championship and first since 1997. The Bruins ended with an 8-4 record. Montclair was denied its fifth championship in the playoff era (since 1974) and finished with a very good 11-1 record, though there wound up being an incomplete feeling going with that record.
"It doesn't mean anything without the ring," Fiore said.