The St. Charles East football team has thrived on turnovers all season, but Friday's 17-10 victory at New Trier was the defense's signature performance.
The Saints entered the second-round of the Class 8A playoffs with a plus-16 turnover differential. Though No. 6 St. Charles East (11-0) and No. 22 New Trier (8-3) committed 3 turnovers apiece, for the Saints it was a matter of where those turnovers took place.
Twice in the middle of the game the Saints had their backs against the end zone yet found ways to force fumbles they recovered near their own goal line to frustrate the Trevians, who average 33.4 points per game.
"Just resilient," St. Charles East junior linebacker Pat Griffin said. "We didn't care whether they were at the 50 or the 10. We came out with just a great effort, never giving up, going for the ball always. Our defense is relentless. We fly around the ball and we're able to get one guy tackling and one guy stripping and turnovers. That's what really won the game."
The victory ties the St. Charles East school record for wins in a single season. More importantly, the Saints advance to a state quarterfinal. They will play the winner of No. 3 Palatine (10-0) and No. 19 Lyons (8-2).
"It feels amazing," said St. Charles East quarterback Zach Mitchell, who rushed for 205 yards on 23 carries. "Last year, being 4-5 and not even making the playoffs to getting all the way to this point, it's pretty crazy."
St. Charles East scored on its first possession, driving 71 yards in 9 plays. Mitchell set an early tone with 4 rushes for 50 yards as the Trevians seemed intent on limiting the effectiveness of sophomore fullback Justin Jett, who was held to 19 yards on 10 carries. Jett's 1-yard touchdown run put his team ahead with 5:11 left in the first quarter.
New Trier and elusive quarterback Clay Czyzyinski subsequently drove far enough for a 25-yard Sam Rutherford field goal to pull within 7-3 with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
After a St. Charles East fumble at midfield on the ensuing possession, the Trevians took the lead with some razzle dazzle. On first down at the East 36-yard line, junior Brian Kaiser took a pitch to the right only to throw the ball to wide open tight end Scott McCabe for a go-ahead touchdown.
The St. Charles East offense punted on its next two possessions and New Trier seemed poised to extend its lead. After driving to the 11-yard line, Czyzyinski was hit at the 5 and fumbled. Junior Yalon Rogers recovered for the Saints with 1:14 left in the second quarter.
Mitchell then carried 3 times for 63 yards to get the Saints within range for a 27-yard Matt Burns field goal, which knotted the score at 10-10 with 3.7 seconds left in the half.
The Saints had the ball to open the second half and took advantage, They marched 80 yards in 9 plays, capped by a great individual effort by wide receiver Josh Luedtke. The 6-footer outjumped a defender to haul in a 25-yard pass from Mitchell just inside the pylon. The extra point staked the Saints to a 17-10 lead with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
The Trevians, in turn, moved 49 yards in 9 plays in an effort to tie. However, Czyzyinski on third-and-7 from the 17 ran the ball to the 2-yard line, where he was gang tackled and stripped.
"Sam Grohe did a great job of wrapping up and stripping the ball and I just had to do my job of making the play," said junior safety Clayton Isbell, who recovered the fumble.
The St. Charles East defense later stopped the Trevians on downs at the East 18-yard line with 3:46 to play, and Mitchell and the triple-option offense took care of the rest, picking up two first downs to run out the clock.
"What they did is they responded," St. Charles East coach Bryce Farquhar said of his defense after the team fell behind 10-7. "The goal line stands, forcing turnovers. Our defense responded so well. I give them all the credit. (The offense) scored some points, but they're the thing that kept us in the game."