EAST RUTHERFORD – Rutherford coach Andy Howell was frozen. Quarterback Kyle Russell was hot as the sun.
The Rutherford senior threw for three touchdowns and was flawless as the Bulldogs blew past Kittatinny, 62-14, in the North Group 2 final at MetLife Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The match-up between Rutherford and Kittatinny was the first of its kind in New Jersey high school football history – a battle between two sectional champions (and really just a prelude to ultimate state title games) but it’s fair to wonder if some of Russell and the Bulldogs records may last a while: 62 points, 593 total yards, 10 drives, nine touchdowns.
Russell, a senior, threw for a career-high 313 yards, completing 19 of 22 for three scores. He also ran for 74 yards and another score.
“He couldn’t play any better,” said Howell, shivering after a Gatorade shower from his team. “He had his struggles early in the year, but he never lost confidence and we never lost confidence in him. He played the best game he could have on the biggest stage possible.”
“It’s incredible,” said Russell, 18. “People dream about this stuff. I am just so grateful to be part of such a great community and great organization.”
Russell shared duties last year at quarterback and faced serious adversity this season after the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference title game against Hasbrouck Heights. He threw six interceptions as the Bulldogs lost 48-24. How he responded may have determined the Bulldogs season.
“We sat down with him and reminded him that he didn’t have to be a superhero,” Howell said. “He is surrounded by a lot of talent. He’s a tough competitor. He’s an athletic kid and he can run the ball. I think he was trying to do too much.”
“I sulked about it for about a day, and then I was like, I have to work,” Russell said. “I felt horrible, but after that, I realized I had to put in the work.”
Rutherford offensive coordinator Steven Dunn said the Bulldogs game plan called for them to exploit the flats and take advantage of the Cougars’ soft coverage. Rutherford also got a big lift from the play of Connor Cahill, playing after breaking his collarbone. He finished with five catches for 102 yards.
“Kyle did it perfectly,” Dunn said. “The whole supporting cast around him did great. This was probably the cleanest game we played all year and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Kittatinny took the opening kickoff and moved swiftly down the field and it looked like Rutherford would have trouble with Cougars workhorse, Jacob Mafaro, but that was the only drive of note for Kittattinny. The Cougars didn’t get another first down in the first half after that drive.
“There was no scheme change needed, we couldn’t tackle,” Howell said. “I think they needed to see Mafaro live. He’s a stud, but once we adjusted to that, we were able to get hats to the ball and gang tackle. That was the difference. It wasn’t scheme.”
Then it became the Russell and Mendez show. Every play seemed to work for Rutherford. Mendez scored on a three-yard run. Russell blew through a big hole 14 yards for a score. An alley screen to Cahill opened up for a 31 yard touchdown. Mendez and Russell combined on maybe the prettiest touchdown of the game when Mendez adjusted on a Russell fade in the end zone and grabbed it for a 20-yard score to make the score 42-7 just before halftime.
Lawson Fisher had a sack and a half as the Kittatinny offense just withered.
“I felt amazing, I felt good,” Russell said. “And when you feel good, you play good.”
All season long, Rutherford (11-1) dealt with the pressure of trying to be the first team in school history to repeat as sectional champs. They did that, then became the first New Jersey team to ever win a bowl game.
Russell posed with the new gold football trophy now awarded by the NJSIAA and talked about how happy he was, and gave his younger brother Doug a shoutout for getting in the game. The Bulldogs lose Mendez and Russell, but may have built a program under Howell that can regularly compete.
“We lose a lot, we have 19 seniors,” Howell said. “We lose a lot, but I remember [people] saying we lost a lot after 2015 and you saw what happened. Hopefully, it’s reload rather than rebuild.”