VESTAL — Carthage coach Jason Coffman leaned on his defense, particularly early on, in the Comets’ 38-14 victory over the Union-Endicott Tigers in the state Class A football regional round Friday at Vestal High School.
The Comets (10-1) advanced to play Canandaigua Academy (10-1) of Section 5 next Friday night at Cicero-North Syracuse in the state semifinals.
This wasn’t Carthage’s best offensive game, and they’ll be the first to say that. Union-Endicott’s defensive line played the Comets as tough as any team has played Carthage all season.
But the ever-relentless Comets pounded away and eventually broke through in the third quarter. After Casey Farrell drilled a 42-yard field goal with ease, the Comets score two quick touchdowns — a 19-yard pass to a wide-open Thomas Albright, followed by a 50-yard run by Fombo Azah.
Azah ultimately turned in 220 rushing yards on 31 carries. He also rushed for three touchdowns, including a 50-yarder.
It took him some time before he was able to dominate the Tigers (3-8).
“First things first, I had to adjust to the weather and hold on to the ball a lot more,” Azah said. “There were a lot of things that I could have done differently, but at the end of the day, we’ll worry about that next week.”
Azah broke off a 32-yard run in the third quarter that set up Nick Cavellier’s touchdown pass to Albright. That play helped boost the running back’s confidence.
The consistency wasn’t there though, and part of what gave the Comets trouble was the play of Tyquinn Green at nose tackle.
“They had a nose guard that we had a lot of trouble blocking, I told the kid after the game, ‘you’re the first guy up front that we could not block no matter what we did,’” Coffman said. “We certainly made some adjustments. Again, we came out like we were cold and then it clicked and we took control of the game.”
The Comets defense has been stern all season and needed to play even stronger Friday night. Fortunately for Carthage, the Tigers’ offense isn’t the most formidable, but the Comets still needed to protect a two-score lead for the entirety of the first half.
The Carthage defensive line played one of its best games, forcing quarterback Zach Pilarcek into risky passes.
“We aren’t huge at linebacker, but we got guys who are aggressive and fly to the ball and tackle,” Coffman said. “And when those front four absorb all five offensive linemen, it keeps our linebackers free to make tackles and that’s what they did.”
The pressure on Pilarcek resulted in him completing only 13 of his 30 pass attempts and throwing two interceptions in the first half.
“It reminds me of the Utica-Proctor game because the defense, after we gave up those two scores (against Proctor) we started coming together and playing,” Carthage’s Miguel Blunt said. “The offense wasn’t really performing as well as it should be so that’s why it reminded me of that.”
Carthage lost to Utica-Proctor, 12-7, in week two of the regular season.
The only success Union-Endicott was able to have was when it put together trick plays. Double passes deep down the field help to set up two scores.
“We got a little bit too comfortable, guys started relaxing and guys started to break down on their assignments, and that can’t happen,” Coffman said. “That’s the difference between winning and losing in a state tournament game.”
The way Friday night’s game played out shed a light on the challenges of playing in the state tournament.
“It’s a whole different environment, you have to expect the unexpected at all times, it’s not going to be a breeze,” Azah said. “And I feel that’s where a lot of teams fall, they expect it to be as easy as the regular season, but it’s nowhere near as easy.”