Basketball crowds love dunks. But Grayslake Central's football fans weren't very excited about an offense that sent Kevin Dunk on the field to punt three times in the first quarter of Friday night's nonconference game with visiting Vernon Hills.
Yet the Rams' defense also forced three punts in the first 10-plus minutes. A 33-yard return on the last one by senior Matt Loeffl gave them a much-needed spark and led to Dunk enjoying the fun of slamming through 4 extra points.
Senior quarterback Alex Lennartz sandwiched touchdown runs around 2 touchdown passes to Loeffl and Grayslake Central forced 6 second-half turnovers to improve to 2-0 with a 28-7 victory at William C. Eiserman Stadium.
"It feels great," Loeffl said of the Rams matching last season's win total.
"Everything is completely different," Lennartz said after completing 10 of 15 passes for 146 yards. "Last year we had a new offense and we were shaky. This year we were confident from the get-go.
"The passing game has come so far from last year and it lets the coaches have confidence in us now."
The Rams have plenty of faith in Loeffl, who was a starting outfielder for the Class 3A third-place state finisher. His running grab of a punt and 33-yard sprint led to Lennartz's 1-yard score on fourth-and-goal 9:38 before halftime.
"It was a huge momentum shift and you could feel it," Loeffl said after catching 5 passes for 98 yards and starting the turnover barrage with an interception 2:43 after halftime.
"It got the team into it and the crowd into it," Lennartz said. "That punt return flipped everything."
But Vernon Hills (0-2) responded with sophomore quarterback Connor McNamara making his first start after senior Jordan Freibrun suffered a broken fibula against DeKalb. McNamara (12-for-26, 150 yards) capped a tying 67-yard drive by hitting Michael Mariella on a 4-yard slant 4:52 before the break.
"We don't create excuses and it's the next man in," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said of McNamara. "(Assistant coach and ex-Bear) Philip Daniels played at Notre Dame and that's their motto.
"The kids have to believe that and Connor believed that. He played great and I'm proud of him."
The Rams came right back with a 70-yard drive behind Ryan Aoki, Diego Quezada, Ben Celeslie, Eamon Peterson and Spencer Hirt. Lennartz hit Loeffl in stride on a fade route to the left corner of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 14 with 44.8 seconds left in the half.
"That was one of the best throws I've seen around," Bellecomo said.
"We love that play and I have faith in all of our receivers to run it," Lennartz said. "When I saw the matchup with the cornerback I knew he had it."
Loeffl's interception led to his 69-yard touchdown catch on Lennartz's eighth straight completion.
"He finds a way to get the job done," Rams coach Ben Ault said of Loeffl. "A kid like that on your team has a chance to be special in all three phases and that's what you saw tonight."
Senior Jacob Vargo also had 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery and Brian Ditton intercepted a pass. Jaron Armiger, Drew Garbett, Quezada, Erik Infante and Billy Barrett also had stops for losses as the Rams allowed 193 total yards.
"We feel like we're getting back to what we did defensively two and three years ago when we made the playoffs," Ault said of a unit led by coordinator Danny Catanzaro that allowed 170 yards in the opener. "We'e doing a great job of forcing turnovers and doing a great job of playing hard, physical defense."