Normally a special teamer, Wauconda senior Garrett Keeton turned in one of the most special performances of his career Saturday afternoon.
Wauconda was in a major funk throughout much of the first half of its North Suburban Conference Prairie Division contest at Round Lake. The Bulldogs were having trouble moving the ball and were trailing by a score at the break.
Keeton, a 5-foot-8, 145-pound speed demon who also plays some defense and had gotten about 10 carries this season in spot duty on offense, was hoping he might hear his number called in the second half.
"I was just watching, and waiting, and hoping I'd get in there," Keeton said. "I was excited when they put me in. I'm not known for my size, but I am known for my speed. I think they put me in because we needed to get the ball down the field and that's what I did."
Suddenly at running back, Keeton wasted no time seizing the moment. His first carry turned into a 27-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that gave Wauconda its first lead en route to a 37-16 come-from-behind victory that spoiled Round Lake's homecoming.
The Bulldogs outscored Round Lake 29-0 in the second half, including 21 fourth-quarter points that coincided with Keeton's addition to the backfield. He had four other carries and another touchdown and totaled 83 yards at 16.6 per carry.
Wauconda, which lost this game last year for Round Lake's only win of 2011, improves to 4-3 overall and 2-3 in the Prairie. Meanwhile, Round Lake, which got up 16-0 and took a 16-8 lead into halftime, drops to 0-7 and 0-4 in the division.
"I was surprised to get in on offense," said Keeton, whose only other touchdown this season came off a kickoff return. "It felt really good to move the ball down the field and get the team pumped up."
The Bulldogs certainly needed a pick-me-up.
They were ambushed early by a Round Lake team that was revved for homecoming and champing at the bit to get a win.
The Panthers jumped out to a 2-0 lead when Wauconda sent a snap for a punt deep in its own territory over the punter's head. Round Lake senior Zach Williamson made a tackle in the end zone for a safety.
Round Lake's offense then went to work, and produced back-to-back touchdowns in the second quarter.
Lined up for a field goal attempt, the Panthers faked out the Wauconda defense when quarterback John Ridley rolled out with the snap and found Steven Handy in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass. Handy then scored again in the final minute of the second quarter on a 1-yard run.
"My teammates and I worked really hard in that first half," said Handy, who caught 6 passes for 54 yards and rushed for another 11 yards. "We were running up the middle and got the ball out on the perimeter, too. And our defense did an amazing job.
"We were right there."
Wauconda took a bit of the wind out of Round Lake's sails just before halftime when David Starkey (20 carries, 71 yards) ran in a 25-yard touchdown with just 16.2 seconds remaining. Before that play, the Bulldogs had been held to just 7 rushing yards and 41 yards total.
"We played a great first half. Everything we needed to do, we did, except for that (Starkey touchdown) at the end," Round Lake coach John Coursey said. "Unfortunately for us, we didn't make those same kinds of plays in the second half. It just didn't work for us. I think we kind of let up a bit. We've never played with a lead like that."
The Panthers' 16-8 halftime lead was their first halftime lead all season, and they may have gotten a little too excited about it.
"I think we were so happy in the locker room and we went with that a little too much," said Ridley, who completed 10-of-23 passes for 83 yards. "We came out unfocused."
Meanwhile, Wauconda was sharpening its focus, disappointed with its lackluster start.
The Bulldogs made sure that the start of the second half was anything but lackluster. They tied the game at 16-16 just 15 seconds into the third quarter when Chris Bednarski returned the opening kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown.
"It seems like we've been doing this in every Saturday game where we just come out slow and then get some motivation somehow at halftime and then we come out and play harder," said Wauconda quarterback Austin Swenson, who completed 7 of 14 passes for 75 yards. "It just started to click and things were smoother for us.
"I think we were all shocked a bit (to be down 16-0), but it was like we all had this feeling that something good was going to happen for us."
Keeton's first touchdown gave Wauconda its first lead with 10:25 remaining in the game. His second (a 1-yard run that came after he ran for a 44-yard gain) put the Bulldogs up 30-16 with 7:48 left.
Wauconda got one last insurance score when Kasper Kulesza scored on a 16-yard run with about five minutes remaining.
"I was teasing the kids that we were like the walking dead in the first half. We didn't play very good football," Wauconda coach Dave Mills said. "But give credit to Round Lake. They jumped out.
"We were able to play pretty well in the second half, though. Our front five guys did a nice job and we were able to move the ball. We just can't get behind like we did. We've gotten behind like that in three games this season, and we've won only one. This one."