On a cold November evening at SHI Stadium, Passaic Tech and Toms River North took the field for the Group 5 State Championship game. Passaic Tech came into the game 13-0, while the Mariners entered at 11-2 for a rematch of last year's state finals game. The Mariners were able to repeat as state champions as they pulled out a 23-13 victory.
Toms River North received the opening kick as Bulldogs kicker Efrain Sanchez squibbed the ball away and Micah Ford and the Mariners' offense set up shop. Ford picked up right where he left off last week, running the ball right through the heart of the defense. The Mariners faced a 4th and 6 from around the Passaic Tech 10-yard line and Ford found Jeremiah Pruitt to put Toms River North up 7-0 less than five minutes into the game.
Trashon Dye and the Bulldogs took over at their own 24 looking to respond. Dye took the very first carry 76 yards all the way to the house and in just 13 seconds, we were tied at seven. Ford and the Mariners went back to work and once again started driving the ball down the field. The Bulldogs, however came up with a huge turnover when Kaiden Rex tipped Ford's pass and Jordan Alston came down with the ball for the game's first interception.
Passaic Tech quarterback Ma’Kao Taylor on 2nd down had a man down field, but could not get enough on the throw and Toms River now had their first turnover of the game intercepting the senior quarterback. After another Ford interception, both teams traded punts for most of the 2nd quarter. The Mariners started to put a drive together, getting the ball into Passaic Tech territory on a 32-yard completion from Ford to Pruitt.
Toms River North faced a 4th and 1 from the Bulldogs 13-yard yard with 20 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Ford powered his way forward to get a 1st down and spiked the ball with 11 seconds left making it 2nd and goal. A holding penalty pushed the Mariners back to the 20, forcing them to kick a field goal. Yianni Papanikolas split the uprights on a 37-yard kick to put Toms River North up 10-7 at the half.
The Bulldogs could not get anything going on their opening drive of the 2nd half and punted the ball away setting up Toms River North’s first drive of the second half. Ford broke loose for a huge 40-yard run and was taken down at the Passaic Tech 1-yard line before powering into the end zone giving the Mariners a 17-7 lead with five minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
With the Bulldogs’ offense not able to get anything going once again, it was up to their defense to make a stop in order to stay in the game. The Passaic Tech defense came up with a huge sack on Ford, forcing a Mariners punt with the clock winding down in the 3rd quarter. Taylor was sacked on the last play of the quarter setting up a 3rd and 27 killing the drive that Passaic Tech had going.
Anthony Rodriguez all, but sealed the game stepping in front of Taylor’s pass and taking it 43 yards all the way to the house putting Toms River North up 23-7 with eight minutes left in the game. Dye got back into the end zone for Passaic, but their 2-point attempt was no good leaving it a 2-possession game at 23-13. Ford and the Mariners’ offense run out the clock and secured their 2nd straight state title. The Stanford commit finished his night rushing for 199 yards and throwing for 72 yards, to go along with two touchdowns to close out his varsity career with consecutive state championships.
For more scenes from the 2023 NJSIAA Football Group 5 Championship, check out more of Andee Fagan's photos from the game.
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