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At times Saturday night the touchdowns came fast and furious on both sides, but when Neuqua Valley needed to slow things down and turn to the ground, the Wildcats were more than willing and able.
The Wildcats outgunned visiting Naperville North 34-27 in the season opener thanks in large part to the strong play of the offensive line in the second half and the hard running of T.J. Scruggs, who carried the ball 42 times for 153 yards and two second-half touchdowns.
Scruggs' big night on the ground followed a special first half by star receiver Mikey Dudek, who despite little sleep the previous night hauled in 3 touchdown passes as the Wildcats took a 20-14 lead at the half.
Neuqua needed all the points it could muster as the visiting Huskies flashed an offense that featured 3 touchdowns from DeSean Brown and a 58-yard Connor Johannes to Anthony Rehayem bomb that tied the score at 27-27 late in the third quarter.
"It was a fun game and everyone was excited," said Scruggs, who picked up 103 yards in the second half and scored on runs of 3 and 4 yards. "We got fired up and the offensive line just excelled in the second half."
Naperville North forced 4 Wildcats turnovers but just couldn't slow Dudek in the first half and then struggled to get the Neuqua offense off the field in the second half. The Wildcats, who ran for 248 yards, amassed 29 first downs on the night.
"I'm very proud of our kids," said Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus, whose squad was without running back Nolan Dean, out with an ankle injury. "Our aerial attack was excellent in the first half, but then we said we wanted to be able to come back and pound them a little bit and we were able to come back and run successfully. And T.J., he's a workhorse. Our offensive really came out in the second half and just got after it."
Naperville North coach Sean Drendel liked the spark senior quarterback Connor Johannes gave his squad after taking over for starter Chris Gajcak. Johannes had a 55-yard run that set up the first of Brown's 3 scores and gave Naperville North a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. Johannes finished 14-of-25 passing for 194 yards and 2 TDs before being picked off late in the contest with his team trailing 34-27.
"It's a loss, but I thought we did a lot of nice things," Drendel said. "Connor came in and gave us a great jump start, which is what you like to see from a senior. They had a special player in Mikey Dudek who was maybe a little much for us in the first half, and then they were able to control the ball a lot in the second half."
After the planned Friday opener was postponed due to weather, Dudek drove to Ohio late that night for his grandfather's funeral, then flew home Saturday on little sleep just in time for the makeup game. His 3 TD catches in the first half were followed by big kick returns and strong runs that helped the hosts hang on in the second half.