A Ridge defense that had been dominant through the first six games was suddenly showing signs of vulnerability in just the first six minutes.
By that time, Cranford quarterback Reggie Green was marching his Cougars methodically downfield on their way to scoring an opening-drive touchdown and handing Ridge its first deficit of the season. Making matters even more painful was an ankle injury to Tyler Ord in that first quarter that would keep the standout linebacker out for the remainder of the game.
"Tyler Ord is the quarterback of the defense. With him out, that's a big loss," junior quarterback/DB Conor Hughes said. "We were all a little shocked when they first scored; they marched right down the field on us. But we're a team that can adjust and also score on any given play. That's one of our benefits."
That Ridge offense had been somewhat overshadowed by a smart, stingy defense that had allowed a mere 38 points entering this game. But paced by Hughes' accurate right arm and Evan Skea's rugged running ability, the Red Devils' offense stepped into the light and sparked a 35-21 victory Friday night at Memorial Field in Cranford.
Hughes, a junior, completed 10 of 16 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns and Skea, a senior fullback, ran for 87 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries to help Ridge, No. 13 in The MSG Varsity NJ Power Rankings, improve to 7-0 with just one game to play before the cutoff for the state playoffs. The Red Devils are currently No. 2 behind Elizabeth in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5.
Jimmy Dwyer ran for two touchdowns and Evan Zoughy carried for a season-high 147 yards and scored once for Cranford (5-2). But The Cougars were held to 52 rushing yards in the second half after churning out 228 yards on 31 attempts in the first 24 minutes. Much of that came on sweeps by Zoughy against Ridge's six-man front.
"Cranford did a great job," Ridge head coach Bill Tracy said. "Watched them on film and saw them hurting teams between the tackles and the quarterback off the edge. Then we play them and they're pitching the ball all over the place. They killed us with it.
"We made an adjustment to 3-4 from 6-2 and I think that helped us shore up a little on the outside," he said. "But then they were hurting us in the middle in the second half because there was one less defender in there. I'm very proud of my guys. They faced a lot of adversity and they fought through it."
Ridge did indeed confront a steep challenge with Cranford's pitch working so well in the first half. The Pittsburgh-bound Green (25 carries, 70 yards) must always be respected with the ball in his hands, and was. And when defenders rushed up to greet him, Green's timing on the pitch was usually impeccable.
Ah, but Ridge's offense proved capable of creating its fair share of adversity for Cranford, first behind the poised and talented Hughes and his steady receivers, and later by the hard-working Skea.
"There's definitely no star on this team, but we can move the football," Skea said. "Everybody can run the football, everybody can catch, we've got a helluva quarterback throwing for us, and our O line doesn’t give up anything in the backfield."
Hughes' crafty play-action--coupled by his receivers' precise routes--created several wide-open pass plays in the first half to help the Red Devils' establish a 21-14 lead. He hit Nick Franzese three times for 68 yards and one TD and found fellow junior Ryan Bell three times for 62 yards and a score in that opening half.
Hughes' 35-yard pass to Franzese--coming one play after a fumble recovery by junior LB Connor Stieglitz--tied the game at 7-7 with :39 left in the first quarter. The 29-yard connection with Bell was slightly more thrilling, as it came as time expired in the first half and with Bell making a fabulous falling catch with a defender in his face.
"Offensively it was try to keep it on the ground and just surprise them with the pass," Skea said. "I don’t think they had an answer for the pass. Conor Hughes was on target on every throw and our receivers don't drop the ball. They know how to get open."
Hughes scaled 200 passing yards for the second straight game, though that wasn't exactly the strategy Tracy envisioned all week. He figured Skea would be the main weapon early, yet he ran only four times for 23 yards in the first half.
"We had to go a little more gun passing today," Tracy said. "They were on our Wing-T really well in the early going. Went to some more gun stuff and Conor found some guys open. I think that loosened things up for us to come back to the Wing-T. The kids did a great job executing whatever it was we tried to do."
Ord's departure seemed to be an absence that would be exploited regularly, but his replacement, junior Al Hatala, did an outstanding job in the middle along with Stieglitz.
"Losing Tyler really made our defense rally up," Skea said. "He's really our guy on defense. Seeing him out, that means we really had to step it up. Al Hatala played a great game, and overall I think our defense held it down. We had some guys step up and we played really well."
Mike Kinney covers football for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS