With a scoring average of 36.3 points in its last three games, the Southern Regional High School football team finally features the diverse offense it thought it would have when the season started.
The production has come just in time.
The Rams are one of four teams left in the South Jersey Group V playoffs, where every team is an offensive powerhouse.
Sixth-seeded Southern (8-2) plays at second-seeded Eastern (7-3) in a semifinal Friday at 7 p.m. Fourth-seeded Atlantic City (8-2) and top-seeded Williamstown (10-0) meet in the other semifinal also on Friday at 7 p.m.
“Our passing game has been clicking,” senior quarterback Dan Higgins said. “We’re spreading the ball out to more receivers and then we get our run game going. The offensive line is doing a great job giving me time to throw the ball and the receivers are catching it.”
But it’s not just that Southern is scoring a lot of points.
It’s how the Rams are crossing the goal line that has made them a South Jersey contender. This is probably one of the more wide-open offenses Southern has ever had.
The Rams have set a school record with 3,251 total yards this season.
Southern coach Chuck Donohue said Southern is throwing more than ever on first down because of Higgins’ experience.
Four different players scored in a 41-20 win over Toms River East on Nov. 10.
Different players have emerged to lead the offense each game. Running back Abe Gonzalez scored four touchdowns in a 33-32 quarterfinal win over Washington Township on Nov. 16. Wide receiver Nick Hem averages nearly 15 yards per catch.
Higgins has thrown for a school-record 1,509 yards this season. He is 40-for-49 for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the last three contests.
Wide receiver Mike Gesicki — one of the region’s most-talented players — continues his outstanding play with 40 catches for 740 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Rams struggled to reach the end zone early in the season. They scored less than 20 points in four of their first five games.
One of the problems was injuries. Higgins hurt his shoulder in the preseason. He did not miss any regular-season games, but he couldn’t throw the ball the way he wanted.
He had to ease his way back into condition. There were some practices where he didn’t throw a pass longer than 10 yards.
“I had a little bit of pain in the beginning of the year,” Higgins said. “Once I got to 100 percent, coach has been letting me throw the ball more.”
The Rams also had to adjust to loss of speedy receiver Kevin Barreau, who injured his knee running outdoor track last spring and has missed the whole season.
The Rams also had to resist the temptation to force the ball to the 6-foot-5 Gesicki on every play. His height, agility and leaping ability make him an irresistible target. But defenses often cover Gesicki with three defenders — one directly on him, one to the inside of him and one deep down field.
“Teams have forced (Higgins) by their coverage’s to go to other guys,” Donohue said. “We have kids stepping up and giving us other guys to go to. You have to use all your weapons.”
The more diverse the Southern offense is the more things open up for Gesicki, who has four touchdown catches and 284 receiving yards in the last three games.
What makes Southern’s offensive success even more remarkable is that the Rams traditionally are known more for their defense than offense.
But even a standout defense would have trouble slowing down the offenses left in South Jersey Group V.
Eastern quarterback Tom Flacco, the brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, has thrown for 2,609 yards. Williamstown’s wing-T offense averages 36.7 points per game. Atlantic City quarterback Jarren McBryde and wide receiver Dayshawn Reynolds are dynamic combination.
“How can you expect to win 14-0 or 14-7?” Donohue said. “I think that’s unrealistic. We have to score.”
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