When a football team's offense is averaging 44 points a game and has not scored fewer than five touchdowns in any contest, it's only natural that the defense gets overlooked at times.
The Neuqua Valley defense picked a great time to grab some headlines of its own as the Wildcats held O'Fallon to 46 yards rushing, recorded three sacks of Panthers quarterback Camden Bauer and forced three turnovers to lead the way to a 38-7 Class 8A opening-round playoff defeat of the Panthers on a cold, rainy night in Naperville.
"We challenged the defense this week and they rose to the occasion," Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "We've played great quarters, played great halves, but tonight we played 48 minutes on defense and I give all the credit to our kids and coaches."
Nolan Dean usually draws plaudits as the Wildcats' leading ball carrier -- and he did have 2 touchdowns and 79 yards rushing in the game -- but his first big contribution came as an outside linebacker. On the possession after the Wildcats (9-1) grabbed a 7-0 lead courtesy of Broc Rutter's 10-yard pass to Mikey Dudek, the first of three TD hookups for the duo in the game, Dean came off the edge on a blitz and dropped Bauer for a 13-yard loss with the ball bouncing free and Neuqua's Godfrey Collins recovering at the O'Fallon 29.
Two plays later, Rutter found Dudek from 27 yards out for a 13-0 edge.
When Dean was asked after the game which he liked better, a TD run or a sack, he had a big-picture answer: "The 'W' on the board," he said. "I just love winning."
After Dean's 2-yard scoring run was answered by O'Fallon's Kentrail Moran's 3-yard trip to pay dirt, the score stood at 19-7, but the Panthers (5-5) looked poised to make it much tighter as halftime approached. Starting at his own 5 following a fourth-down stop by the defense, Bauer completed six straight passes to move the Panthers to the Neuqua 33.
Then he was placed under duress by Collins and forced a throw that was intercepted by Eli Tappin. Starting at their own 30, the Wildcats needed six plays and only 46 seconds to cover the 70 yards, with Rutter finding Dudek from 9 yards out at the 14-second mark to make it 25-7 at the half.
"We were moving the ball at the end of the half, and if we punch it in there it's 19-14," said O'Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst. "Instead, they go in and we're down three scores."
With the conditions worsening in the second half, the Wildcats stuck mainly to the ground, with T.J. Scruggs scoring from 17 yards out and Dean adding a 2-yard plunge in the third quarter to close the scoring.
The Wildcats look forward to a second-round playoff matchup against either Simeon or Lyons Township, who square off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Chicago.