Palatine's defense came into this high school football season as a big question mark.
But in time, it's developed into a huge exclamation point.
That defense came away with another sizzling performance in the playoffs as Palatine held off visiting St. Charles East 10-6 on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Class 8A playoffs.
The Pirates (12-0) advance to the semifinals for the second consecutive year. They will play at Maine South next Saturday for the right to play in the state title game Nov. 26 in Champaign. Maine South advanced by beating Lincoln-Way East 34-31 on a last-second field goal.
"I can't say enough about our defense," Palatine coach Rick Splitt said. "They made huge plays all night against an offense they were seeing for the first time. I am just proud of our kids."
Palatine's defense began the season with just two starters returning. As the Pirates' high-powered offense was receiving most of the attention, the defense started out as an afterthought.
Lately, though, it's been front and center, especially for Palatine's three playoff opponents. The Pirates had allowed just 17 points in their first two games, with quarterback Zach Oles out with an injury.
Even when St. Charles East (11-1) went 88 yards on the game's opening drive, it didn't deter Palatine.
"We were just playing too slow," Pirates defensive lineman McKenzie Balanganayi said. "We had to adjust and play fast. They play triple option, and we had to hit all three runners at the same time and have some fun out there."
St. Charles had some fun as well, and was impressive on that first drive.
Quarterback Zach Mitchell was masterful in guiding the Saints down the field on an 18-play march that used up nearly 10 minutes as Nicholas Garlisch scored on a 3-yard run. The Saints missed the conversion kick to lead 6-0.
Undaunted, Palatine came right back.
The Pirates put together a modest 8-play drive of their own, starting with a 44-yard run by Josh Turner. After a pass to Johnny O'Shea was defended nicely, Palatine went back to the well. O'Shea delivered on a third-and-12 play, making a quick move off the line scrimmage and then beating his defender on a slant pattern for a touchdown.
"I know DJ (Angelaccio) trusts me," said O'Shea, who had big catch after big catch to finish with 6 receptions for 61 yards. "We work hard together in practice. I made a bad play at first, and I knew I had to bounce back. DJ put it there and I knew I had to be physical and score."
Jack Grochowski added the conversion kick, and two plays into the second quarter Palatine led 7-6.
Football is a game of adjustments, and the Splitt and the Pirates made theirs. St. Charles had 8 first downs on the opening drive and finished the game with 13.
"Option football got us," Splitt said. "But we gathered and we just started playing physical."
Splitt -- who could be heard on the sidelines saying "Fullback, Fullback" -- said stopping that dive play was the key to his defense's success.
"Our eyes were not on their fullback," Splitt said. "We were there, but our eyes were not on him and he was bouncing outside. That's why we wanted our eyes on him."
With Balanganayi, Josh Danielson, Bryant Smith and Jesus Salinas clogging the line and backers Cortez Hogans, Brody Muck and Scotty Elter flowing to the ball, the Saints offense had little room as the Pirates took a 7-6 lead at the break.
"We just had to get low and do what we do every week," Salinas said. "We just knew we had to move around and do something to stop them"
Palatine appeared to extend its lead to a touchdown in the third quarter, but a play was negated by an offensive pass interference call. The tables were then turned on St. Charles when it appeared to have stopped the Pirates on fourth down, only to have a personal foul call go against the Saints.
That set up a 30-yard field goal by Grochowski to put the Pirates up 10-6 with 2:22 left in the third quarter.
Grochowski's leg was asset for the Pirates in the fourth quarter. He had two punts downed inside the 10, with the final one at the Saints 3' with 2:50 to play.
"I had to come up with some big plays for us," Grochowski said, "And my teammates did a great job covering the ball when I kicked it."
That's when the game turned from Palatine's front 7 to its defensive backfield.
Jake Moertl, Matt Garner, JT Streepy, Dylan Tapia and O'Shea allowed short passes as St. Charles moved the ball to the 32 with just over a minute to play. The Palatine defenders then knocked down 4 consecutive passes to put the game away.
"We had a new game plan and we had to execute it," said Moertl, whose interception just before the end of the first half was his ninth of the season. "Coach said it would come down to us at the end of the game. We were deflecting balls left and right. It was awesome."
Splitt says it's exciting to be the first team in Palatine history to advance to the semifinals in back-to-back years.
"It is great for our school and our players," Splitt said. "But we are still taking it one at a time."
St. Charles East coach Bryce Farquhar said it all came down to adjustments.
"They made some adjustments and we struggled to make some adjustments back," Farquhar said. "You play a defense like that of that caliber and you can't match those adjustments. That's what we saw tonight."
Farquhar, whose team turned a 4-5 season from a year ago to go undefeated before Saturday's loss, credited his seniors for the turnaround.
"I am proud of our seniors and the job they have done," Farquhar said. "Where we have come is because of their work ethic."