Conventional wisdom will say that Lindenhurst's outstanding wide receiver Jeremy Ruckert will win football games by making the big catch.
On Saturday, Ruckert found an unconventional way to win a game. With the score tied late in the fourth quarter of a defensive battle with Commack, Ruckert found himself in the right place at the right time.
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A swarming Commack defense jarred the ball loose from Lindenhurst halfback Joe Barber at the Commack 47 and it bounced toward the sideline. Ruckert scooped up the ball at the 45 and raced to the end zone for the winning touchdown as top-ranked Lindenhurst came back for a 14-7 win in a Suffolk Division I game.
"I saw it come out of the pile and right at me," Ruckert said. "And it was go time. I grabbed it and took off."
Four Commack defenders gave chase and had the angle on the speedy Ruckert, but he put it into high gear and beat the final tackler to the cone. Ruckert, who hadn't been targeted by quarterback Ryan Hofmann for three quarters, touched the ball for the first time in the game.
Big-time players make big-time plays at go time. And Ruckert, who was locked down by Commack's fantastic defensive back Augie Contressa, contributed when the Bulldogs needed him the most.
"Contressa is one of the best players on Long Island," Hofmann said. "And they gave us the respect of having him in press coverage on Jeremy and we were looking to go to other guys. But the wind was making it difficult to throw. We really needed that big play."
The matchup of unbeatens left the large crowd with two impressions. Lindenhurst (4-0), Newsday's top-ranked team, can win with defense and an opportunistic offense. And Commack (3-1) served notice that it is for real and can go toe to toe with anyone in the division.
"We can't make mistakes against the top teams in the division and expect to win," Commack coach Jeff DiLorenzo said. "We didn't finish drives."
Commack opened the scoring when it capped a 10-play, 53-yard drive with Tom Dugan scoring on a 2-yard run with 24 seconds left in the half. Chris Arnold added the kick and the Cougars led 7-0.
"We got chewed out at halftime and that fired us up," Hofmann said. "We had to pick it up and get the momentum."
Hofmann engineered an 11-play, 51-yard scoring drive that consumed 3:11 in the third quarter. The Lindenhurst quarterback, the second-leading passer on Long Island, had zero yards passing in a scoreless first half. On the scoring drive, he completed 5 of 9 nine passes for 45 yards to set up Barber's 8-yard scoring run. Ruckert's extra-point kick tied the score at 7 with 6:49 left.
"Both teams were playing excellent defense," Lindenhurst coach Nick Lombardo said. "And we just weren't executing our offense. Ryan made some key throws on that drive."
Contressa, who had 130 yards on 24 carries, helped the Cougars move out to midfield on the ensuing drive but quarterback C.J. Trenkle was intercepted by John Palmeri at the Lindenhurst 45. It was the first of three interceptions by the Bulldogs' secondary in the second half.
Two plays later, Barber broke over left tackle and dragged two defenders into the secondary before the ball was stripped and Ruckert made himself Jeremy on the spot.
"He's a playmaker," Lombardo said. "It may not have been about catching the ball in this game. This time, it was about picking it up."