Shabazz had enjoyed a string of winning seasons, deep state playoff runs and even a sectional championship since the resurrection of the Soul Bowl with Newark rival Weequahic in 2008.
Those achievements notwithstanding, the Bulldogs for seven years were left with only the bland taste of humble pie on the holiday long associated with good food and football.
But enough was evidently enough for Shabazz as they dug in Thursday morning with full intent to end a protracted losing streak to its longtime South Ward nemesis.
Thanksgiving football? For the Bulldogs to fulfill this quest, they were going to have to commit themselves to the act of Thanks-taking.
"It's been too long," senior defensive lineman Amir Amos said. "It was time for us to bring back the trophy. We had enough."
A Weequahic team that had been known to produce big plays during its successful run was practically ground to a halt by this quick and assertive but also extremely smart Shabazz defense.
The Bulldogs partially blocked two punt attempts--one returned by Elijah Outen-Muhammad for a short touchdown run--intercepted a pass and recorded six second-half sacks on their way to a 20-6 victory over the Indians in the annual Soul Bowl at Shabazz Stadium in Newark. That snapped the seven-game losing streak and gave Shabazz a 16-15-2 edge in the series.
"Seven years, that's a long time," senior safety Juaquan Newkirk said. He had a hand in eight tackles and also was in on one of the sacks in that stingy second half. The leader of that effort was Amos, who recorded four of the six sacks and also was in on seven other tackles. Shakur Burgess had seven tackles and played a part on two sacks and fellow lineman Darnell Grant Jr. compiled eight tackles and was in on one of the sacks.
"The win feels great," Newkirk said, "but coming out here and playing disciplined, hard football with passion, and everybody on the same page all the time, that's what made the game happen. It was a beautiful game."
Not if you are the kind of fan who needs crisp offensive execution to satisfy the senses. This was a bare-knuckle brawl from start (Weequhic's Abdul-Majid Sills dropped Wykeel Johnson for a 6-yard loss on the opening play) to finish--and none of the 3,200 or so fans seemed to mind. At least not those among the Shabazz contingent.
"We didn't make the playoffs this year and we didn't have a consolation, so we had three weeks to prepare," Shabazz coach Darnell Grant Sr. said. "Years past, this was always a short week of preparation to have to come out here and stop (Weequahic's) option. But this time everything was this game. Everything was film breakdown and working our schemes."
Shabazz squandered a first-half lead and fell to Weequahic, 18-14, last Thanksgiving, but then rebounded nine days later to edge Dunellen, 14-6, for its first sectional title in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1. Both teams reached a sectional final in 2013 following their T-Day meeting, but lost in the playoffs. Weequahic also made losing bids in sectional finals in 2012 and '11 after besting Shabazz on T-Day.
"We've had guys here who made it to the playoffs every year, we had guys who went to the state championship, guys who won a state championship, but no one could say they won the Soul Bowl," Grant Sr. said. "So, leave your mark, leave your legacy."
Weequahic seemed fully prepared to leave another large imprint on this battle when it cut down Shabazz on that initial drive of the game behind the rugged play of Sills, Christian Roper, Quaison Horne and Ali Beh. The Bulldogs were forced to punt on a fourth-and-eight from their 26, but an errant snap accorded Weequahic possession at the Shabazz 15 for its first stab at the end end.
Outen-Muhammad came up with a tackle for a one-yard loss on first down, sophomore Paul Orduson crashed through for a six-yard loss and then the Indians threw incomplete on third down. Quarterback Tymen Sampson ran on fourth down, but was stopped well shy of the first down at the 11.
"To me, that was the turning point," Grant Sr. said. "They're always a little bigger and stronger than us up front, so for our guys to make a stand like that, it was like bullying the bully. Our guys were like, I don't care what you do, if you leave the ball on the goal line, you're not getting in."
Weequahic did get in several possession later after a fumble recovery by Horne at the Shabazz 42. Ten plays into the move, Sampson rolled left and hit Mustafa Lawrence with a 6-yard TD pass for a 6-0 lead with 9:03 to go in the first half.
Up to that point, Shabazz had little success against the Indians, yet promptly answered that touchdown with a four-play, 65-yard drive highlighted by Prince Olubakinde's 64-yard pass to Justin Johnson (after a loss)and capped with a 5-yard keeper by Olubakinde with 7:34 left in the half. Al-Dair Santos added the PAT for a 7-6 lead.
Amos had certainly done nothing to disgrace himself in that black-and-blue first half (ending with Shabazz holding that one-point lead), but the 6-5, 215-pound senior did not feel he had made the kind of contribution he had hoped for. That all changed by the time he hit the field in the third quarter.
"I just had to work harder. First half I came out slow," he said. "Second half I had to pick it up."
Any specific words at intermission for that defense?
"Yeah, you've just got to keep playing together; you've got to play hard and fast, he said."
Under normal circumstances, Weequahic would have been delighted with its defensive numbers--holding Shabazz to 173 total yards, and just 77 on the ground. But that was of little use when Shabazz held the Indians to 154 yards, and a mere 48 in the second half.
Outen-Muhammad got a piece of a Weequahic punt that landed at its 5-yard line to set up Shabazz' second score, a 2-yard run by Wykeel Johnson for a 13-6 lead with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter. Two possessions later, Weequahic was again punting from its end zone, and this time Outen-Muhammad fielded the partially blocked kick at the Indians 23 and sprinted into the end zone with 5:14 to go.
Weequahic (4-7) 0--6--0--0--6
Shabazz (4-5) 0--7--6--7--20
W-Mustafa Lawrence 6 pass from Tymen Sampson (pass failed)
S-Prince Olubakinde 5 run (Al-Dair Santos kick)
S-Wykeel Johnson 2 run (run failed)
S-Elijah Outen-Muhammad 23 punt return (Santos kick)