By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Both Egg Harbor Township and host Mainland Regional struggled mightily on offense in the season opener on Saturday afternoon, and after nearly two full quarters of play it felt like a defensive or special teams score would ultimately turn the tide. That’s exactly what happened, as Mainland senior lineman Sam Epstein scooped up a bad snap on an Eagles punt and raced about 15 yards to paydirt to give the Mustangs a 7-0 lead two minutes before halftime.
EHT scored early in the fourth quarter but missed the extra point, and with less than a minute to go Mainland defensive back Dennis Moreno picked off a pitch on an option play and ran it back 85 yards for some insurance as the Mustangs held on for a sloppy 13-6 win that featured a slew of miscues and penalties on each side.
“Right before that play, I told (Ja’Briel Mace), ‘yo, we got you.’ We know what he can do, he does great things, and today (the defense) was able to hold it down for him,” Moreno said. “I saw it was a speed-option play and I’m on ‘go’ on that play. I just read the option (pitch) and made a play.”
Sophomore Ja’Briel Mace — who rushed for nearly 1,400 yards as a freshman last year — finished with 95 yards for Mainland but made his biggest impact on defense, as he chased down Avery McKim on an interception that had “pick-6” written all over it. Mace’s touchdown-saving tackle came up big, as EHT missed a potential go-ahead field goal on that possession.
“I was running after him and I started cramping up a little bit,” Mace said. “Last year, against Oakcrest, I let up on a play against (Harrison Doe), so I was like, I’m not going to let that happen again. I had to go get him.”
Mainland had several drives that started in EHT territory in the first half but couldn’t capitalize, as a new offense being run by freshman quarterback Jake Meyers struggled to get any momentum going. But the Eagles were hurting themselves, too, with fumbles, penalties and a blocked punt. A bad snap that resulted in Epstein’s scoop-and-score only compounded the Eagles’ first-half miscues.
“I saw it and picked it up, but I didn’t realize how far away from the end zone I was. I stopped running five yards before I got there. I thought I was already in, to be honest,” Epstein said. “We put in a new offense and today we had a bunch of young guys on the offensive line, but we’re slowly going to develop and get there. But our defense, we have one of the best coaches around here in (Antoine) Lewis, we all love playing for him and he motivates us to get 11 hats to the ball every single time. We don’t need one person to make every tackle.”
Mainland’s defense stood tall, though, against some tough running by McKim and Chris Decker, and a couple of big plays from sophomore quarterback Christian Rando. Early in the fourth — after a fumbled punt snap by Mainland set EHT up at the Mustangs’ 25-yard line — Rando hooked up with Amir Dunn over the middle to get the Eagles to the 2-yard line, then Rando plowed in himself to cut the deficit to 7-6. EHT’s final three possessions, however, ended with a missed field goal and two interceptions.
“We’re young, we still have to grow and we’ll continue to grow,” Moreno said. “We’re not happy with our performance, but we got the job done and that’s all that matters. We’ll keep on working next week. We want to go 1-0 every week, that’s the plan.”
“Every year, the papers keep doubting us in Week One. Last year it was Absegami and we beat them by 30, this year it was EHT. When are they going to start picking us? But that just motivates us. We see that on Wednesday or Thursday and it becomes personal at that point,” Epstein said. “We have to play this week by week because we don’t know if we’ll be here next Friday. The coaches tell us to treat every game like a playoff game. This was a playoff game for us, and our defense certainly played like that. We just have to step it up on offense. I’m a senior and I want to play six or eight games, whatever it may be. Every time I step out here it’s my last chance (to make an impact).”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays