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One statistic told the tale of Cary-Grove's 41-14 homecoming victory over upstart Huntley Saturday afternoon: the Trojans won the turnover battle 6-0.
Huntley fumbled the opening kickoff, which led to Kyle Norberg's 15-yard touchdown run 4 plays later. The Red Raiders fumbled twice more in the first quarter, and the Cary-Grove defense intercepted 3 Kam Sallee passes, highlighted by senior Zach Marszal's 32-yard touchdown return that gave the Trojans a 20-0 lead with 8:55 left in the second quarter.
The convincing victory left Cary-Grove (7-0, 4-0), ranked No. 6 in Class 7A, alone atop the FVC Valley standings with 2 games remaining against Dundee-Crown and Prairie Ridge.
The defeat was Huntley's first since Week 2. The Red Raiders slipped to 4-3 overall, 4-1 in the FVC Valley, and now must defeat Woodstock and McHenry to guarantee themselves a playoff spot.
The Trojans were boosted by an outstanding effort from Marszal, who intercepted 2 passes while playing cornerback opposite 6-foot-4 Huntley receiving threat, Bryce Beschorner.
Offensively, Marszal scored on a 42-yard, first-quarter reception from Quinn Baker to make it 14-0. He also sped 63 yards up the right sideline on a second-quarter reverse -- escorted by hustling offensive linemen Gunnar Halverson and Kyle Matthiesen -- to stake the Trojans to a 27-0 lead with 3:22 remaining before halftime.
"I think that was really a statement for us," Marszal said. "It was a great day. Both sides of the ball really did their jobs. It was a big game because we're both chasing the conference championship. We believe we can keep this thing rolling and, hopefully, close out the season."
Huntley got on the scoreboard late in the second quarter. Sallee connected with Jake Lackovic for a 15-yard pass, which Lackovic turned into a 56-yard touchdown.
However, any Huntley momentum from that score was negated on the first play of the second half when Norberg broke through the line for a 66-yard touchdown run. Norberg later burst for a 73-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter to cap the scoring for Cary-Grove. The 6-2, 211-pound fullback finished with 14 carries for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns.
"It started the first play of the game with that fumble on the kickoff," Beschorner said of Huntley's long afternoon. "I think that just set the tone, and we were flat. We came out flat. Then starting the second half with that long touchdown run -- that and the turnovers are things we just can't let happen."
Huntley gained 367 total yards compared to Cary-Grove's 377, but the Red Raiders' half-dozen turnovers short-circuited their progress.
"They're a great football team with great players," Huntley coach John Hart said of Cary-Grove. "As I told our kids before the ballgame, if we don't turn the ball over and have self-inflicted wounds, meaning big plays by us making mistakes, we'd have a chance to win this football game. I really think when we play well, we're just as good as that football team. The difference between champions and guys that are aspiring to be is they make mistakes. (Cary-Grove) doesn't make many.
"We had 6 turnovers. You can play a bad team and get beat like this, let alone play a championship caliber team like Cary-Grove."
The only detraction for the Trojans was the loss of their quarterback, Baker, to an injury. He sat out the second half with an ice pack on his left hand and was scheduled to have X-rays taken after the game, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said.
Otherwise, Seaburg was ecstatic with the way his players responded to the challenge, particularly their ability to cause turnovers.
"To have that turnover on that kickoff to start the game, that was huge," Seaburg said. "It set the tone. The wind played a factor, too. Us being able to kick off with the wind a couple of times and then get those turnovers gave us a lot of momentum."