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Not many times does a team take a 28-0 lead and eventually have to make a defensive stop in the final minute to win, but that's the situation Geneva found itself in Friday night against St. Charles North.
The Vikings had North Stars quarterback Erik Miller running for his life much of the night, and they pressured him again on fourth-and-4 with two minutes remaining. Tight end Garrett Johnson couldn't corral Miller's desperation pass, and the incompletion finally sealed a 35-28 Geneva win that early on never seemed headed for fourth-quarter drama.
"We've got to finish," Geneva coach Rob Wicinski said. "When you have a team down you can't let them up. It goes back to the same old thing we've been harping on, play clean, play smart, be tough mentally. But they held on."
That Geneva did, getting a win that could loom large when the playoff field is announced next month.
"For the seniors we beat them freshman year and haven't beat them since," said Geneva wide receiver Kyle Brown, who was in the middle of the Vikings' prolific passing game in the first half Friday. "Last year they beat us up pretty good so it's kind of nice to come back strong this year."
The Vikings (3-2, 2-1 in the Upstate Eight Conference River Division) outgained the North Stars 421 yards to 330, an advantage that stood at 323-150 at halftime with Geneva quarterback Daniel Santacaterina throwing for 245 first-half yards and 4 touchdowns on 10-of-13 passing.
Santacaterina finished 13-for-22 for 271 yards, a combination of more conservative play-calling and the North Stars' adjustments.
"We switched coverage, more of a man under, cover two over (in the second half)," North Stars coach Rob Pomazak said. "The passes were killing us so we had to give our corners some protection and that's what we did and it looked like it paid off. It's just 35 points in the first half is hard to come back from no matter who you are."
St. Charles North (2-3, 1-2) dug itself an early hole. Santacaterina couldn't have played a much better first half, starting with the opening drive when he marched his team 75 yards in eight plays, capping it with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Michael Landi.
Geneva senior defensive lineman Billy Doubs delivered a crushing hit on Miller, forcing a fumble that Mitch Keller recovered while Miller stayed on the ground for several minutes.
Taking over at the North Stars' 7, Santacaterina ended the short drive with a 1-yard keeper and a 14-0 lead.
Santacaterina, who completed his first 6 passes for 165 yards and 3 touchdowns, went back to the air for Geneva's next two scores. First he hit Brown on a perfect fade in the left end zone from 23 yards out, then connected with Brown on a seam route that Brown took 57 yards to pay dirt and an eye-opening 28-0 lead with 11:10 still left in the second quarter.
"It's a lot of fun and once we get in our groove it's a great feeling," said Brown who caught 5 passes for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns. "That's how we practice it all week and we just executed. That's some of the best execution we've had. We had a really good week of practice. And Daniel had some good time back there."
The North Stars, who didn't complete a pass in the first half, got back in the game behind senior running back Evan Kurtz. His 9-yard touchdown run got the North Stars on the board, and after Santacaterina answered with his fourth TD pass of the first half, this one 12 yards to Pace Temple (6 catches, 125 yards), Kurtz raced 72 yards on St. Charles North's next play to bring his team within 35-14 at halftime.
The North Stars kept their comeback going in the third quarter, pulling within 35-21 when Miller took a broken play -- a shotgun snap that went over his head -- retrieved the ball, scrambled and fired to Jon Merriwether who made the catch and then eluded two would-be tacklers for a 38-yard score. It also was St. Charles North's first completion.
The North Stars had a chance to get closer. They converted a fourth down at the Geneva 11 when Miller drew Geneva offsides, but then fumbled on the next play and the Vikings' James Carroll recovered.
Geneva, flagged 12 times for 120 yards last week, had 14 more penalties Friday for 116 yards. Several came on a North Star fourth-quarter drive that ended with Miller's clutch 21-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the right corner of the end zone on a 4th-and-20 play.
Before that, a defensive holding penalty on a fourth down kept the drive alive and didn't go over well on the Geneva sideline which was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty moments later.
"We've got to be disciplined, it starts at top, I need to be more disciplined," Wicinski said.
Johnson's touchdown came with 4:30 left, and after Dylan Hunter intercepted Santacaterina the North Stars had the ball on their 31-yard line and almost three minutes to drive for the tying touchdown.
Kurtz (22 carries, 189 yards, 2 TDs), however, was out for the series with a stinger, and Geneva held without giving up a first down. The North Stars got the ball back once more with just 10 seconds left at their own 20-yard line, and the Vikings sacked Miller on the final play of the game.
"We've got to close out the games a little better and we've got something going here," Brown said. "I don't think we took the foot off the gas, I think they made some plays."
Miller went 6 for 11 for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns in the second half and earned respect from Pomazak for staying in the game after the vicious hit he took early in the first quarter.
"I thought for sure he'd be out," Pomazak said. "Erik showed you what type of athlete he is. He's a warrior. He did a great job. I wish the defense would have held up because 28 points is more than enough to win a football game. It's very disappointing."
Follow John Lemon on Twitter @jlemonDH