Click here for highlights from the Phil Simms North-South All-Star Football Classic on Monday, June 24, 2019 at Kean University.
Lauren Knego, @laurenknego
The namesake of the Phil Simms North-South All-Star Football Classic knew going into the 41st annual affair that both teams possessed strong-armed and agile quarterbacks, leading him to expect a high-scoring affair.
“I think the four quarterbacks that are here in this game as a group are the best I’ve had since I’ve been doing this,” said Simms, a 15-year NFL veteran and MVP of Super Bowl XXI who lent his name to the state’s longest running high school all-star gridiron contest six years ago.
The North featured Hackensack’s Zion Frazier and Barringer’s Zamar Wise under center. The South countered with Somerville’s Jalahn Dabney and Winslow’s Prince Dru-Bey.
“They all just can throw the ball well,” Simms said at halftime. “They’ve been accurate. They get rid of it. They can move around and they’ve got great arm strength. Every one of them looks like a good college quarterback. They have the whole thing. All of them.”
After the quartet of signal callers, who benefited from an array of gifted skill position players and solid blocking up front, combined for 344 passing yards and 31 points before the intermission, the running game of the North proved to be the difference on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter as it rallied for a dramatic 24-23 comeback victory at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium on Monday night.
The South, which had won the last two meetings, including a convincing 38-16 victory a year ago, still leads the all-time series 20-19-2.
Trailing 23-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the North rushed seven times on an 11-play scoring march that covered 81 yards.
Bayonne running back Azhuan Dingle, who was named the North’s Offensive MVP, capped the winning drive on an 8-yard run with three minutes and 12 seconds remaining to produce the final margin.
“We just wanted to win,” Dingle said. “That’s all we wanted. We came out and executed and made it happen. We came out slow. It took us some time to start up, but we fixed our chemistry and made some adjustments, did our thing and finished the game.”
The South took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the North 8 yard line, setting up a 25-yard field goal attempt for Freehold Boro’s Jake Hurler, whose potential game-winning kick with eight seconds left clanked off the right upright, sending the North into a celebratory frenzy.
After the North scored a late third-quarter touchdown, closing the deficit to 21-17, Manchester defensive end Eric Cowan registered his third sack of the game, tackling Frazier in the end zone for a safety to help the South rebuild its lead to 23-17 with 10 minutes and 17 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Cowan, who finished with nine tackles, was named the South’s Defensive MVP, while teammate Jacari Carter of Sayreville, who finished with 54 total yards of offense, was named the South’s Offensive MVP.
“It’s very fun playing with this kind of offense,” Carter said of the South’s spread attack at halftime. “I’ve been touching the ball a lot, so it’s a very special moment for me right now. You know, we’re moving the ball and everything like that. Coach is getting me involved in the game. And our quarterbacks are playing well and our O-line is doing very good. It’s just a very dangerous offense.”
The North scored on its first play from scrimmage as Frazier connected with Hasbrouck Heights’ Jasiah Purdie on a wheel route that resulted in an 85-yard scoring strike.
Frazier hit Purdie in stride just beyond the midfield stripe and the speedy wideout, who picked up a nice downfield block from Summit’s Max Jackson, outraced a defender to the endzone for a 7-0 lead just five minutes and 30 seconds into the contest.
Frazier completed seven of his first eight passes for 115 yards but was intercepted on the North’s second series.
The pick, from Long Branch’s Marc Dennis, set up the first of three consecutive scoring drives for the South, which found the end zone three times during a tide-turning 11-minute stretch to build a 21-7 lead with 4:48 remaining in the opening half.
Dru-Bey, who engineered two of those touchdown marches, completed 12 of 15 passes for 116 yards before the intermission.
He was brilliant on the South’s first scoring drive, connecting on seven of nine attempts for 75 yards including a clutch 33-yard completion to Penns Grove’s Tyreke Brown on third-and-4 from his own 19-yard line that kept the march alive. Dru-Bey fittingly capped the drive, keeping on a read option for a 3-yard score, knotting the contest at 7-7 with eight seconds left in the first quarter.
“We started off taking everything short, taking what we could get,” Dabney said of the South’s early offensive strategy, which featured bubble screens and dump passes. “And then as the drives came along, we started to open up the playbook. Started throwing shots. It (kept) them guessing. That’s what we (had) to do, keep them guessing.”
Dabney made the most of his second turn under center for the South, connecting with Salem’s Ja’yon Mejias for a 76-yard gain on a flea flicker, setting up a first-and-goal from the 4 yard line. Dabney scored on the ensuing play on a keeper to give the South a 14-7 lead with seven minutes and 33 seconds left in the second quarter.
“I laughed at practice. I go, ‘That will never work.’ But it worked,” Simms said of the flea flicker, on which the cornerbacks crept. “So that was pretty cool. I see all the trick plays in practice and I go these things never work, but we had a couple big plays tonight from different looks. It (was) good.”
After forcing the North to punt for a second consecutive series, the South gained possession with excellent field position near midfield, setting up a three-play, 47-yard touchdown drive that a late hit penalty aided. Dru-Bey completed the mini march with an 18-yard scoring strike to Manasquan’s James Pendergist in the left corner of the end zone for a 21-7 lead with four minutes and 48 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
The North closed the deficit to 21-10 with 52 seconds left in the first half on a 36-yard field goal from St. Joseph of Montvale’s Andrew Guglielmello.
Guglielmello had an opportunity to close the deficit on the opening series of the third quarter, but his 30-yard field goal attempt hit the right upright as the North had nothing to show following a 60-yard kickoff return from Rutherford’s Abellany Mendez, which gave his team excellent field position.
Monmouth Regional’s Dayshawn Porter intercepted Frazier on the North’s next possession, picking off a pass at the South 11 yard line.
The South, however, turned the ball over three plays later as East Orange’s Christopher Stultz, who was the North’s Defensive MVP, stripped Dabney. Paterson Kennedy’s Jayden Cornish recovered the loose ball at the South 12-yard line.
“We lost two years in a row,” Stultz said of snapping the South’s winning streak. “It’s always a battle. Who is better? North Jersey or South Jersey? It’s a blessing to play in this game.”
Three plays later, Dingle found the end zone out of the wildcat formation, converting a direct snap into a 1-yard touchdown plunge, closing the deficit to 21-17 with 43 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Former New York Giants offensive lineman David Diehl, a two-time-Super Bowl champion, served as honorary head coach for the North, while former NFL linebacker Garry Cobb, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, was the honorary head coach for the South.
Simms said Diehl and Cobb both had an impact on the game and its caliber of play.
“The offensive line’s pass blocking has really been impressive,” Simms said. “David (Diehl) really worked hard with his offensive linemen. That was really cool. And of course on the other side, Gary Cobb, you know a linebacker, he wasn’t taking any stuff this weekend from the kids. I know that. So that was good, too. They were both really good, very involved and they were talkative to the kids in a lot of good ways. So it was really a great week for the coaches.”
L.J. Smith of Highland Park is among more than a dozen NFL players who participated in the North-South game. Other North-South alumni who went on to play in the NFL include Kareem McKenzie, Irving Fryer, Jim Jeffcoat, Dan Klecko, William Green, Alonzo Spellman and Ricky Proehl.
Nearly 90 players from more than 87 schools were selected to play in this year’s All-Star game with participants coming from as far north as Sussex County and as far south as Cape May County.