By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — As it makes its way through October and down the stretch toward a potential state playoff berth, the Mainland Regional High football team isn’t trying to do anything fancy. No double reverses, end-arounds or halfback options. The Mustangs are just going with good, old-fashioned ground-and-pound running game — the kind that would make your granddaddy proud.
And it’s a pretty solid game plan when you have a backfield that features junior quarterback Marlon Leslie and junior tailback Ja’Briel Mace. That duo combined to rush for more than 250 yards and five touchdowns as the Mustangs beat visiting Vineland, 35-25, in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week on Friday night to get up over the .500 mark. The Stangs are now 4-3 and have two more regular-season games left — both at home — next week against Clearview and Oct. 22 vs. Delsea Regional.
Mainland got things going early as Mace — who became the school’s second-leading rusher all-time with tonight’s yardage — scored from 57 yards out on the second play from scrimmage. Mainland took a 14-7 lead into halftime but it took most of the second half for the Mustangs to shake Vineland (1-5), a team that continued to fight hard and come back each time Mainland extended its lead.
The Fighting Clan pulled to within 14-12 late in the third quarter on a tough 10-yard touchdown run by freshman quarterback Dan Russo — which came moments after a 103-yard interception return for a touchdown by Mace was called back because of a penalty. Then, early in the fourth, after Mainland extended its lead to 21-12 on the second of Leslie’s three touchdown runs, Vineland came back again, shaving the lead to 21-19 when Russo connected with James Hitchens Jr. on a 59-yard scoring strike down the right sideline.
THE TURNING POINT: After seeing Vineland draw to within two points with 10:19 remaining, Mainland needed a sustained drive that ended in points to begin to salt the game away. They got just that behind Leslie and Mace.
The Stangs drove inside Vineland territory and Mace converted a 4th-and-1 at the Fighing Clan 37-yard line. That kept the drive alive, and on the very next play he raced around the right edge and scampered down the sideline for a touchdown that put Mainland up 28-19 with 5:51 to go. On Vineland’s next drive, Mace picked off a Russo pass at the 30 and returned it inside the 10-yard line, setting up Leslie’s 4-yard touchdown run that pushed the lead to 35-19.
“They were still in the game so I had to get the job done and get into the end zone. I told the O-line ‘no mistakes.’ I told everyone ‘no mistakes’ and that we had to get into the end zone if we wanted to win this game,” Leslie said. “We had put up more points and keep moving the ball.”
“This win is amazing, obviously, but there’s still more work to do. We’re just trying to make it to the playoffs, regardless of how well I play. It felt good (to score first) because that set the tone early and let them know that we were going to run the ball down their throats,” Mace said. “They are huge up front. They have a lot of size, especially No. 34 (Jahmer Bryson), I played against him in little league. They are big, that’s all I can say.”
THE 1-2 PUNCH: Leslie and Mace form one of the top offensive backfields in South Jersey, although a recent ACL injury to senior H-back Mike Ordille has made things a little more difficult. But having Ordille’s brother, Stephen, on hand to spell Mace at times was a key factor in the win over Vineland.
Mace and Leslie each had a touchdown run in the first half and garnered the bulk of the carries as Leslie needed only two passing attempts late in the second quarter as Mainland was trying to tack on a few points before halftime. Other than that, it was Leslie left, Mace right — or vice versa.
“I was talking to (Marlon) and I said, ‘if me and you are on the same page, there’s no team out there that can stop us,'” Mace said.
“We came into this game to get on a roll,” Leslie added. “With me and him on a roll there’s nobody stopping us. We’re the 1-2 punch.”
A GREAT PLAY THAT ALMOST WAS: With Vineland trailing, 14-6, late in the third quarter — and threatening — Russo lofted a ball into the left corner of the end zone. Mace leaped high in the air and picked it off three yards deep, decided to run it out and eluded all 11 members of the Vineland offensive unit on his way down the right sideline for what appeared to be a 103-yard interception return for a score.
But pass interference was called on Mainland, negating one of the most spectacular plays in South Jersey this season.
“That was amazing,” Mace said. “I’ve always wanted to play safety but we needed help at corner back. We lost a couple guys due to injuries so they moved me to corner, and I made plays. We just have that next-play mentality. Obviously, it didn’t count, but I did get another one.”
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR VINELAND: No coach wants a moral victory in Week 6, but for Vineland, a team that is in a rebuilding stage with a freshman quarterback, it can take heart in the way it competed and kept coming back when the chips were down.
Vineland trailed 7-0, 14-0, 14-6, 14-12, 21-12, 21-19, 28-19 and 35-19 — and just kept coming back. And three of the Fighting Clan’s best players — Russo, Hitchens Jr. (6-foot-3/175) and defensive end Emmanuel Doivilus (6-5/215) — return next year. Vineland has lost only two game this year by more than 10 points and two of its five losses have been by a touchdown or less.
WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR MAINLAND: Every win this time of year is huge, and this one, which gets Mainland to 4-3, could certainly help the Mustangs get into the state playoffs. Mainland has won two straight games and has scored nearly 70 points in that span. Offensively, at least, things are clicking and the Stangs are showing the ability to adapt in some spots because of injuries.
“We feel great,” Leslie said. “We’ve pulled out these last two games and if we can get into the playoffs, we’ll feel good about ourselves.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Mainland hosts Clearview on Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. Vineland hosts St. Augustine Prep on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays