Friday night's game between host North Chicago and Vernon Hills was a classic defensive struggle.
The majority of this North Suburban Prairie contest was played between the 20-yard lines, with neither team really being able to gain the upper hand offensively.
But when the chips were down and time was starting to run out in a scoreless deadlock, the visiting Cougars managed to put together a late scoring drive and hold off a late North Chicago surge to capture a hard-fought 6-0 victory.
Vernon Hills (2-4, 2-1) really put the Warhawks (3-3, 1-3) behind the eight ball now as far as their hopes of getting into the IHSA playoffs as North Chicago still has a tough schedule in its final three weeks of the regular season.
Both teams were looking for a game-breaking play, but they had very little luck or consistency on offense for the better part of this back and forth contest.
But with exactly two minutes to play, North Chicago running back Sharif Blackmon lost a fumble and the Cougars recovered the ball on the Warhawks' 44.
On first down came Vernon Hills' best passing play of the night as sophomore quarterback Connor McNamara lobbed a 24-yard pass over the defense and into the hands of senior teammate Tyler Wood down to the North Chicago 20.
Then came another huge play from a real difference-maker in the game as Vernon Hills junior running back Kyle Thomas (47 yards on 5 carries) busted off an 18-yard run right up the middle of the defense to give the Cougars first-and-goal from the 2.
On the next play, Thomas hit pay dirt with a 2-yard TD run for a 6-0 lead before the extra point was blocked to keep the score at 6-0 with 1:19 to play.
"We just had to stick through it, we fought as a team, and that's what Cougars do," said Thomas following a raucous post-game celebration by Vernon Hills. "Even though it wasn't going our way sometimes we just had to fight through it as a team."
The Warhawks did put together a valiant late-game rally behind senior quarterback Arnold Shead, who started a furious North Chicago drive at its own 31.
After reaching midfield with 15.9 seconds remaining, Shead hit junior teammate Jamero Shelton with a huge 35-yard pass with 4.7 seconds left.
After a timeout Shead (10-for-30, 139 yards) rolled to his left and threw what would have been the tying TD pass. But Shead was over the line of scrimmage on the play and the Cougars' defense had secured an exciting 6-0 victory.
"We felt like we knew what they would do offensively and we knew it would be a defensive struggle," said Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo, whose team had 164 total yards of offense. "We knew when we were going to take our chances and Wood came up with the big catch."
The game was not without its share of controversy as North Chicago was assessed two 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the same play with 11:19 to play.
The conflict near midfield ultimately resulted in North Chicago's Khalil Rogers being ejected from the game and Vernon Hills getting the ball at the Warhawks 24.
The Cougars marched down to the 3. But on fourth-and-1 junior Rich Clark was stopped for a 1-yard loss to give the ball back to North Chicago.
The Warhawks had 233 total yards of offense and 8 penalties for 95 yards overall. North Chicago coach Glen Kozlowski was pretty unhappy with the referees following the game.
"We have a lot of kids banged up and the kids all played hard," said Kozlowski. "Unfortunately the referees affected the outcome of the game, but I'm not taking away from Vernon Hills effort and they earned the victory tonight. But it would be nice to let the kids decide the game and not the guys in the zebra stripes."
Shead had 19 rushes for 59 yards despite taking a lot of negative yardage due to sacks. Vernon Hills senior Mason Geick was a real workhorse with 35 yards on 17 carries while McNamara ran 5 times for 20 yards.
"Our defense has been playing great all year," added Bellecomo, who hopes to get senior quarterback Jordan Freibrun back for the final game of the season. "We know that is our strength and we have to lean on that."