Undefeated Rockford Boylan was ripe to be upset in Saturday's Class 6A second-round matchup, but No. 9 Cary-Grove didn't play the perfect game it needed to play in order to knock off the talented No. 1 seed.
Two Cary-Grove passes were tipped by Boylan defenders at the line of scrimmage and intercepted, and the Trojans fumbled away another possession in the second half. They missed connecting on 6 pass attempts of 20 or more yards and they committed 7 penalties for 50 yards, including a pair of costly, second-half encroachment flags that resulted in first downs.
In fact, Boylan (11-0) sealed its 17-10 victory when Cary-Grove's defensive linemen jumped the count on fourth-and-1 at their own 23-yard line with 1:28 to play. The Titans subsequently ran out the clock to advance to the quarterfinals against Prairie Ridge (7-4), which defeated Marmion 21-20. The loss denied Cary-Grove (7-4) a quarterfinal berth for only the third time in 10 seasons.
"Turnovers, penalties and execution," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "Those are the three things we talked about all week and we didn't do any of those three things. In the playoffs when you turn the ball over, you have penalties and you don't execute, you're collecting equipment."
Trailing 14-3 in the third quarter, Cary-Grove made a push. The Trojans drove 72 yards in 7 plays, keyed by a 32-yard juggling reception by George Hartke. Quarterback Jason Gregoire connected 2 plays later with Zach McQuade, who caught the ball at the pylon and dragged his feet for a textbook 18-yard touchdown reception. Collin Walsh's point after drew the Trojans within 14-10 with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
Senior lineman Emerson Kersten kept the momentum on Cary-Grove's side. On Boylan's next play from scrimmage, Kersten batted a pass from Boylan quarterback Demry Croft into the air and intercepted it himself, setting up his offense at the Titan 23-yard line.
The Trojans converted a fourth down and drove to the 10, but the seventh play of the drive ended in disaster when a Boylan lineman deflected the 6-foot-4 Gregoire's pass over the middle. The tipped ball landed in the hands of junior defensive back Matt Sciame at his own 5-yard line, and he returned it 27 yards to quash the threat.
"I think they just kind of timed it and sat back," Gregoire said of the batted passes. "They weren't really rushing. They were just trying to time it and get up. Unfortunately, we didn't get their hands down or I didn't throw it high enough or whatever it was."
Junior Sam McGuire notched Boylan's other pick on a similar deflection late in the second quarter.
"We don't practice much pass defense, but we spent a lot of time on it last week against (Belvidere) North and it just kind of rolled over to this week," Sciame said. "When they started throwing it was to our advantage."
After the teams traded punts, Boylan moved 38 yards in 8 plays, settling for a 37-yard Shumaker field goal and a 17-10 lead with 6:33 left in the fourth quarter.
Cary-Grove picked up a first down on a 4-yard run on third-and-3 by freshman Tyler Pennington, who finished with 105 yards on 21 carries. However, the Trojans were forced to go for it on fourth-and-5 at their own 43. Gregoire's pass intended for Hartke was broken up by defensive back Jack Appel, who persevered after having his bell rung on the first play of the first quarter.
"We had an opportunity after (Kersten's) interception, then we throw an interception on the tipped pass," Seaburg said. "That was really the game right there. That really changed the tide."
The first half was a defensive struggle as Cary-Grove outgained Boylan 125 yards to 35. The Trojans took a 3-0 lead with 6:13 left in the second quarter on Walsh's 26-yard field goal with the wind at his back. That was set up by Pennington's 46-yard jaunt, which was 1 of only 2 Cary-Grove plays to cover more than 20 yards.
McGuire's interception and return to the Cary-Grove 28-yard line gave Boylan a golden opportunity late in the second quarter, but quarterback Demry Croft could not complete a pass into the wind before the half ended with the Trojans ahead 3-0.
Croft rectified that problem in the third quarter, when he marched the Titans 64 yards in 9 plays into the teeth of the wind. His 19-yard scoring strike to 6-foot-2 junior Nick Nalewanski put Boylan ahead 6-3. A low snap resulted in a failed extra point.
The Titans struck again 2 possessions later, moving 66 yards in 5 plays, keyed by a 28-yard keeper by Croft and a 22-yard screen pass to senior running back Nick Pumilia. Senior Zackary Matthews (6-1, 230 pounds) bulled his way into the end zone from 4 yards out, and Croft ran for the 2-point conversion to stake Boylan to a 14-3 lead with 3:45 left in the third quarter.
"It came down to a couple of plays here or there. It could have gone either way," Kersten said. "I'm really proud of the way we played, the way we held them and stuck with them. I'm proud of this team."