Steinert’s Jake Swindasz hand-off to Jordan Morrison on a kickoff. Morrison would go the distance to score a touchdown to start the 2nd half of the game against Wall Township. Photo by Amanda Ruch.
By Rich Fisher
Nov. 11: No one took joy from the outcome, but everyone took pride in the effort.
With Steinert’s 4th-seeded football team one allowed-touchdown away from starting a running clock, the Spartans stormed back to challenge 5th-seeded Wall Township before dropping a 49-41 decision in an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III first-round playoff game.
Jordan Morrison rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, kind of returned a kickoff for a TD and threw for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Colin Smith was 10-for-14 for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Miles Smith caught six passes for 157 yards and three TDs.
“I am damn proud,” coach Dan Caruso said. “That’s the best effort I’ve seen from a football team in all my years coaching. In the first half we didn’t exactly show up, but that second half we were the better team. I know that doesn’t count on the scoreboard, the scoreboard still says 49-41 them and still ends up a W for them and an L for us. But the effort from these kids was just outstanding.”
Amazing is more like it.
At halftime, Wall (5-4) held a 35-7 advantage as fun-to-watch running back Brady McNally had rushed for 253 yards and four touchdowns on 16 carries. The Spartans’ points came on Morrison’s 70-yard touchdown run to make it 21-7 at the time.
Photo Gallery by Amanda Ruch Photography
The stats at intermission were grim as Wall had outgained Steinert 312-154. If the Crimson Knights scored the first TD/PAT in the second half, the 35-point lead would have started a running clock.
“I don’t know what happened at the start,” Caruso said. “Some guys were just inexperienced in the playoffs. You have to get used to it. Too much intensity. It could have been our schedule was thrown off because had whole week off. I don’t know what it was.”
At halftime, Steinert decided to loosen things up in the lockerroom.
“The thought process from the coaches was ‘What do we have to lose? Let’s throw everything at them, pull out all the stops,’” Caruso said. “We did, and damn near everything we ran worked.”
It started with a Brad Harris designed kickoff return to open the half, in which Jake Swindasz took the ball and crossed over to hand it back to Morrison, who steamed 60 yards for a score.
“Jordan made a fantastic run,” Caruso said. “But the play was made when Jake made a fantastic play coming across the field to get that handoff off. He had to break two tackles for that to happen and Jordan made a great play after that and that sparked us.”
“That lifted us up a lot,” Colin Smith agreed. “I always like a good kickoff return because I don’t have anything to worry about and we get some points. But that definitely started it off for us and we started to get the ball rolling from there.”
The Spartans defense began to slow down McNally, who finished with 331 yards but “only” had 78 after intermission. In the first half he had TD runs of 49, 41 and 87 yards, but could not unleash long ones in the second.
“We pretty much knew if he hit the second level he’d be able to break one,” Morrison said. “We just wanted to hit him in the backfield, so he couldn’t get going. We switched up a couple things on defense and came out fighting.”
Steinert made it 35-21 when M. Smith caught a 45-yard TD pass from C. Smith and then grabbed the 2-point conversion from Morrison. Wall slowed the momentum with a 65-yard touchdown catch by Tim McKernan, but Steinert answered with an 80-yard TD pass from Morrison to Miles Smith, and a 10-yard scoring strike from Colin Smith to Morrison. The second was set up by Gehrig Rios’ fumble recovery on a kickoff.
Suddenly, it was 42-35 with an entire quarter remaining. What the heck was going on?
“Once we were within seven, that’s when we started to realize ‘Wait a minute, this is our game, we can get this!” said Colin Smith, who was in the midst of his best passing day in high school.
“That message at halftime kind of brought me into a state of relaxation,” the quarterback said. “I wasn’t really worried about anything. We had nothing to lose.”
After Morrison’s TD catch pulled Steinert within seven, Dylan Richey made what might have been the biggest play of the game when he fumbled the kickoff, then broke two tackles for a 70-yard return that set Wall up for another McNally touchdown run.
The Spartans continued to battle and cut it to 49-41 when Morrison found Miles Smith with a 15-yard TD pass. It was an outstanding, leaping catch by Smith.
Wall then drove to the Spartan 35 and had a fourth-and-4. Lined up in the wildcat, McNally used a hard cadence count to draw Steinert offsides for a first down, and the Knights ran out the final 3:30.
“The kids at that point are antsy, they want to make a play,” Caruso said. “You can’t fault a kid for making an aggressive error. And on the kickoff, the kid bobbled it, then he scooped it. We missed a tackle or two, but that kid made a great play.”
When it was over, Morrison admitted that Steinert had to overcome a little doubt that had crept in by intermission.
“I’m not gonna lie, during the first half it was kind of rough playing because we kept making mistakes,” he said. “We pretty much had to regroup at halftime. That’s what brought us up and helped us score touchdowns.”
It also helped that he and Smith are able to both produce at quarterback.
“Jordan can run the ball much better than I can; he’s just so shifty with everything,” Smith said. “We both threw pretty well. Their defense played a really good game but with both of us playing quarterback it gave them a different look every time, which was good.”
It was the third straight loss for Steinert (5-4), but Caruso feels the second-half rally was enough to provide some momentum heading into the Thanksgiving game at Hamilton. In assessing the comeback – which came exactly six years to the day when Steinert beat Wall for its first-ever playoff win – Caruso felt the biggest factor was heart.
“We made a couple adjustments here and there, a couple of things we realized we couldn’t do because their defensive front was so good,” he said. “We knew we were getting manhandled a little bit defensively, so we wanted to adjust our defensive tackles. We went to a five-man look at times.
“But it was mostly about effort and gutting it out. The effort was great.”
One of the greatest ever given by a Steinert football team.