The weather was terrific, but you wouldn't have known it from the play on the field. The first annual New Jersey-Northeast All-Star Classic, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be played in heavy mud. Both offenses struggled to get into a rhythm behind poor quarterback play (I frequently found myself wishing that Tom Savage was playing in the game), and subsequently relied on their ground attacks for most of the game. They weren't able to sustain drives that would put seven points on the scoreboard, and their kickers repeatedly missed chip shot field goals, unable to even notch a modest three. It wasn't the prettiest or most exciting game, but it was one with a thrilling finish. Everyone in the stands today will remember Josh Evans racing down the sidelines for years to come.
There's absolutely no question in my mind that Pittsburgh-bound Ray Graham was the best player on the field today, and rightly deserves his status as the state's best tailback. All three NJ backs looked good behind strong offensive line play. The shifty Graham repeatedly cut on a dime, flashed his enormous potential on big play after big play, and packed a surprising amount of power for such an unimposing figure. With all of those superlatives, the best compliment I can pay to Graham however is that he's able to identify his running late, and dart towards it, likely breaking several tackles in the process. Graham has the ability to make people miss, but largely eschews flash for a no-nonsense, keep the chains moving approach. Graham didn't do anything to damper the lofty Ray Rice comparisons that have been tossed around for the past year. With NJ's passing game repeatedly sputtering in the second half, Graham answered the call, and put the rest of the team on his pack as Phil Simms kept calling his number.
It was a close call, but I thought that the second best player I saw on the field today, and possibly the one who flashed the most in terms of pure athletic ability, was Florida-bound safety Josh Evans. Evans showed plenty of range in breaking up several passes. However, he did most of his damage in the return game; and where this was most evident was as the game's climatic, definitive moment right near the end of the fourth quarter. Logan Ryan keyed a critical interception as the Northeast drove into their red zone, (edit: this section corrected for accuracy, I wasn't 100% clear on what occurred), and Carlo Calabrese lateralled the ball to Evans. Who proceeded to explode towards the opposing end zone, single handedly earning the victory for New Jersey. Evans looked to be a more than capable safety today. However, there's no doubt that he's an explosive athlete who needs to have the ball in hs hands. He can make things happen, and that's why I think Florida should make him into their next Percy Harvin at receiver.
Until the last play of the game, my vote for second best player on the field would have gone to Northeast tailback De'Antwan "Rocket" Williams. He might have looked as good as Graham if the Northeast's line was even in the same ballpark as New Jersey's. Williams was repeatedly met at the line of scrimmage by multiple defenders, but was still able to break some tackles for positive yardage. Williams too showed impressive acceleration and burst, tempered somewhat by a tendency to dance around. He can break tackles, but on a couple of occasions chose to sacrifice yardage but stutter stepping or cutting back in an attempt to break a big play. Who knows; he very well may have ended up breaking one if given 20+ carries over the course of a full game. Williams might be a little too quick to race towards the sidelines too.
Other standouts and honorable mention
This is a Rutgers fan site, so I can't help but be impressed by the play of Mike Larrow and Logan Ryan today. It's tempered by the fact that the Northeast line was below average, and their backup quarterback Najee Tyler (Purdue) didn't show a lot of maneuverability, but Larrow connected for multiple sacks on the day, and generated a lot of pressure outside. Ryan looked good in coverage matched up with Justin Brown when the Northeast did manage to fling the ball downfield. Receiver Quron Pratt was targeted on several passes, but the NJ quarterback play wasn't anything to write home about either. Pratt was also called for a block in the back, which negated a big first down. Linebacker Ka'Lial Glaud was in on a few tackles, and Aaron Hayward was in for one series at running back. Given the run-heavy emphasis on the day, it's not a surprise that Tight End Malcolm Bush wasn't targetted in the passing game.
The Jersey OL, again, looked more than capable today. Both teams were held back by QB play, but I was surprised that NJ didn't win by a larger margin given their notable edge in the trenches. They all get a thumbs up. I liked what little I saw from NE receivers Justin Brown (PSU) and Deon Long (WVU), and NJ backer Carlo Calabrese (ND) was in on a few tackles.
For anyone who missed the game, and wants a copy for posterity's sake, the NFL Network (returning soon to a Comcast system near you) has the rights to rebroadcast the game