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Wheeling and coach Brent Pearlman branched out Friday in Hoffman Estates.
Isaac Branch rushed for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns while Pearlman coached from the press box for the first time in his 14 years as head coach as the Wildcats planted their first victory of the season 28-21 over Hoffman Estates.
Wheeling quarterback Amani Dennis scored on a 13-yard run with 5.6 seconds to play for the decisive score in a battle of the most prominent coaches in the area, Pearlman and Hoffman Estates coach Mike Donatucci.
"The wins aren't important in the whole scheme of things," Pearlman said. "It is how they play and how they fight. To me, it is more important to look at the process that you got you there."
After starting the season 0-3, Pearlman looked at his process as well, and decided that the press box would be the best place for him.
"We ask our kids to grow and we have to ask ourselves to grow as well," Pearlman said. "I thought maybe that this would be a better place for me to see the field and see the game. I am not afraid to try anything."
That fearlessness on Wheeling's final drive of the game led to Dennis' touchdown.
With Wheeling facing third-and-17 at its own 26, Pearlman and the Wildcats went into the trick bag. After a direct snap to Branch, who plays running back, Dennis snuck out to the right sideline, where Branch laid in a perfect pass for a 32-yard gain.
Later, it was Dennis firing over the middle into traffic on third-and-15 at the Wheeling 27. He found Tyler Urban on a 19-yard gain with 32 seconds to play. After a penalty moved the ball back 5 yards, Dennis ran nearly untouched up the middle for the clinching score.
"I had told my coach that was going to be open," said Dennis, who was 8-of-19 for 90 yards and rushed for another 51 yards. "The line blocked it perfectly. It was wide open. I love my line."
So does Branch, who is quickly becoming one of the top running backs in the area. Only a junior, he was a workhorse, carrying the ball 27 times.
"The line had a heckuva game," Branch said. "I just followed them through the holes that they gave me."
After Hoffman Estates (2-2) scored on its first play from scrimmage on a 77-yard run by Hawk quarterback Jeff Mayes, that Wheeling line that took over.
With Tim Shover, Matt Greenberg, Marshall Dyson, Sam Yoshino and Jim Grady out in front, the Wildcats strung together three long scoring drives to lead 21-7 at the half.
Dennis scored on a 10-yard run to cap an 11-play, 63-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7. On the Wildcats' next series, they put together a 13-play, 75 yard drive with Branch tallying from the 6 to make it 14-7.
But the most impressive drive came just before the end of the half as Wheeling marched 99 yards in just over two minutes. Branch scored on a 3-yard run with 13.8 seconds left to end the 9-play drive.
"I told the kids that this would be a dogfight," Donatucci said. "And in the first half, we just weren't ready. We gave up that long touchdown at the end of the half and that really hurt."
Donatucci sure had his Hawks ready in the second half. After running just 14 offensive plays in the entire first half, Hoffman ran off 13 in a row. Keegan Mugerditchian scored on a 2-yard run to cut the lead to 21-14 with 5:47 left in the third quarter.
The Hawks put together a 96-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 21-21. And they did it without Kabrian Johnson and Mayes (13-of18, 122 yards), who both left during the drive with injuries.
Stepping in and up for the Hawks was Connor McCreary, who ripped off a 36 yard run to take the ball to the 2. Two plays later, Mikeen Cleveland, who replaced Mayes, scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game with 4:24 to play.
"This is a game we could have won," Donatucci said. "I was proud of the adjustments the kids made in the second half."