All Hoffman Estates needed to get out of its first-half funk was a steady dose of Jaylin Johnson -- and one big play.
The Hawks defeated Conant 20-6 to capture The Mayor's Cup and improve to 5-0 on homecoming weekend. Hoffman Estates endured a sloppy 24 minutes before finally taking control against the Cougars.
The Hawks entered Friday night's contest averaging 37 points. But the offense couldn't get out of its own way during the first half of their Mid-Suburban West opener. The rivals headed into the locker room tied at zero.
Coach Tim Heyse shouldered the blame for the sluggish start that featured 5 penalties and only 2 first downs during the first half for his offense. He told his team at the intermission to keep pounding and reflected on prior experience to settle down his undefeated team.
"That was all that was said. We have to calm down, we've been in a situation like that," Heyse said. "Last year in the playoffs we were down 23-0, came back and tied it in the fourth and ended up losing.
"But we've been there. They're seniors. We knew the (Mid-Suburban) West was going to be a grind every week. Every week's going to be a game like this."
The message was well received. Johnson served as the catalyst for Hoffman Estates, carrying the ball on five straight plays for 36 yards to open the second half. The Hawks got on the board four plays -- and two more Johnson carries -- later when Austin Coalson connected with Jaylan Alexander on a 38-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.
Hoffman Estates never looked back after that.
A Cougars fumble recovered by Shawn Brown set the Hawks up on their opponent's 25 for their second scoring drive. It was capped by Johnson's first touchdown run of the night from four yards out. Johnson would tack on one more score in the final two minutes and finished the night with 96 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 carries.
Conant's best chance came on a lengthy drive that began with 2:46 in the first quarter and ended with less than five minutes remaining in the second stanza. The Cougars sustained a 19-play drive and had first-and-goal from the 10-yard line before holding and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on consecutive plays backed them up 25 yards.
Coach Bryan Stortz's team dropped its fourth straight game despite competitive efforts during each loss. He said his team's crucial miscues have constantly occurred at the worst moments.
"Well, we get down there and we went backwards," Stortz said. "It's been that story all season. We make a play -- penalty. Lot of them are aggressive penalties. I think that we're more of a disciplined team than some of the penalties that are occurring.
"I think there's some things that we need to do better, and obviously we aren't at that point yet. Our kids are working hard, but we need to finish."
Conant's chances took a significant hit when senior quarterback Matt Majer exited the game during the first half with a possible concussion, according to Stortz. The Cougars were already without junior Kevin Polaski, which forced sophomore Ross Pedro into action.
Pedro finished the game 3-for-13 with 28 yards and a touchdown pass with just seconds remaining to Mason Sykes that represented Conant's only score of the night. It's uncertain whether Majer will be ready for next week's matchup against Fremd.
The Hawks carry plenty of experience from last year's team that lost in the first round of the 7A state playoffs to Benet. Hoffman Estates most likely clinched a postseason berth Friday night and Heyse believes last year's run could serve as an advantage as they embark on the second half of the season.
"The senior leadership," Heyse said when asked about the difference in this year's team. "The kids playing 10 games last year, half the guys playing as sophomore nine games that year. It's just experience and leadership."
That maturity must pay off when Hoffman Estates faces arguably its stiffest test of the season next weekend at Schaumburg.