Glenbard North was poised to defy and conquer once again in its upset-laden tour through the Class 8A state football playoffs.
The 11th-seeded Panthers had already defied the odds by taking out three higher-seeded teams to reach the semifinals. Now, on a gray and windy Saturday afternoon in Wilmette, they were 24 minutes from conquering unbeaten and top-seeded Loyola.
"Everybody knew we could come out and beat any opponent we faced this year," said junior Dominic Fornino, whose bizarre 21-yard punt return touchdown sparked the Panthers to a 13-point halftime lead. "It was a matter of how we played and how much confidence we came out with."
But Loyola came out after intermission with the drive of a team looking to prevent a third straight season ending one heartbreaking step from Champaign.
The Ramblers turned up the defensive intensity and got their offense going to overcome their biggest deficit of the season by a deceptive 28-13 score at Hoerster Field.
"In the first half I definitely thought we were (in control)," said Glenbard North senior linebacker Hunter Week, who had a sack along with Phil Jackson. "But that's a good defense that held us and their playmakers made plays."
The biggest one put Loyola (13-0) on its way to a single-season school victory record and first title-game trip since it won the 6A crown in 1993. It will face Bolingbrook (12-1), a 22-19 winner over Naperville Central (9-4), at 7 p.m. next Saturday at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium.
Loyola faced a fourth-and-4 at the 35 of the Panthers (9-4). Three plays earlier, Anthony Lynch initially was credited with a diving interception but another official ruled it hit the ground.
Senior quarterback Malcolm Weaver (14-for-26, 185 yards) lofted a pass toward 6-foot-3½ receiver Charlie Dowdle on an inside route. Dowdle outfought the defender to make a juggling one-hand catch and raced to the end zone for a 14-13 lead with 11:54 to play.
"It was so fitting for him to make that play on his last game on this field," said Loyola coach John Holecek.
"That's something we've worked on all year," Dowdle said after catching 5 passes for 61 yards. "To give the receiver a chance and that's what he did."
An early defensive struggle took a wild turn when a rugby punt into the wind by Loyola's Dylan Brennan was deflected. Fornino plucked it out of the air and raced 21 untouched yards into the end zone 9:02 before halftime.
"I felt I had to make a big play for the team there," Fornino said. "It was a big momentum-changer."
Glenbard North rode it to Trevor Hackett field goals of 21 and 30 yards at 1:26 and on the final play before halftime respectively.
But Daveed Carter's stop for a 1-yard loss on Phil Jackson (16 carries, 32 yards) on third-and-goal from the 2 and Eric Bielinski's end-zone breakup of a pass for Justin Jackson minimized Loyola's damage on those final possessions.
"We came out with a lot more emotion in the second half," Dowdle said.
The Ramblers picked up the tempo and capped an 80-yard drive in the first 2:32 of the second half on Weaver's 22-yard pass to Peter Pujals.
After Phil Jackson's 7-yard run on Panthers' first second-half play, they were held to 32 yards on their final 34 plays by the Ramblers. All-state linebacker Eric Hauser, Carter, Michael Paloian and Luke Ford led the way to eight second-half stops for losses.
"As a defense we knew our offense could get us back in the game," Hauser said after Glenbard North got 40 of its 150 yards in the second half.
A Panthers' drive to the Loyola 25 to extend their 13-7 lead ended on two sacks. Another drive to regain the lead ended with 6:33 left on fourth-and-11 from the Loyola 22 when quarterback Brian Murphy was stopped for 3 yards and knocked out of the game with a right shoulder injury.
Glenbard North's next two possessions with backup quarterback Greg Traficanti started at its 3 and 8 into the wind. Six yards in 7 plays led to Loyola touchdown runs by Willy Palivos and Ryan Ribordy in the final 2:06.
"I'm so proud of this team," Week said of the Panthers' bid for a fourth title-game appearance. "We all had the heart to win but I just wish we could have in this game."