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Wheeling had host Rolling Meadows on the ropes twice Friday night at Robert A. Hoese Field.
First, the Wildcats stunned Meadows with two quick first-quarter touchdowns. Then the visitors rallied late in the third quarter to tie the contest after the Mustangs had taken a big lead.
"It was a brand new game in the fourth quarter," said Meadows cornerback Kevin Adair. "We knew had to play the best we could, and we were able to come up with some big stops."
Along with some well-timed offense, it was the resurgent Meadows "D" that turned the tide late in a 40-27 Mustangs win in Mid-Suburban East play.
"We came out tonight with the mindset to fight like animals," said Wheeling freshman Jalen Dennis, who caught a TD pass in the third quarter. "We're not happy with the outcome, but you've got to tip your hat to Rolling Meadows.
"We fought our butts off but Meadows is a very good team."
Early in the opening period, Wheeling got a 78-yard interception return from Nick O'Brien and an 11-yard scoring strike from quarterback Amani Dennis to Zack Lett.
Meadows countered with a Kevin Montero 15-yard run, two 1-yard plunges by quarterback Bobby Suchecki and a 5-yard TD pass from Suchecki to senior receiver Alex Niecikowski to take a commanding 27-13 halftime lead.
"We pounded the ball tonight," said Meadows senior lineman Billy Golaris. "The offensive line took a big load on their shoulders."
Wheeling struck quickly in the third quarter to tie the game on a 10-yard run by junior Isaac Branch (106 yards rushing), then a 12-yard fourth-down toss, from Amani Dennis to Jalen Dennis.
The Wildcats had the momentum on their side but Meadows (3-2, 1-0) wouldn't back down, scoring on a Jack O'Neill 11-yard run and a 41-yard touchdown grab by Niecikowski on a perfect spiral from Suchecki.
Then the Mustangs "D" took over again, three times stopping Wheeling fourth-quarter drives — twice deep in Meadows territory.
Ryan Ference and Matt Long each recorded fourth-quarter sacks as Meadows was able to keep Wheeling out of the end zone.
Suchecki finished 13 of 23 through the air for 132 yards while teammate Montero rushed for 137 yards before going down with an apparent foot injury in the third quarter.
Wheeling (1-4, 0-1) quarterback Dennis completed 15 of 23 passes for 99 yards and rushed for 51 more.
"We had watched a lot of film on Wheeling," said Golaris, "and we knew they had a big running attack. Their quarterback (Dennis) and running back (Branch) are great players.
"I give a lot of credit to them, but our defense made some outstanding plays."