Some questioned if Naperville Central's football team could match Wheaton North's physical play.
The Redhawks answered with a thump.
Naperville Central scored the only touchdown of the second half and held on for Friday's 14-7 DuPage Valley Conference victory over visiting Wheaton North.
The Redhawks (6-2, 6-1) clinch at least a share of the DVC title, denying the Falcons (6-2, 5-2) a chance at their own piece of the crown. Naperville Central can wrap up the outright title with a Week 9 win over Lake Park.
"All week we stressed coming out strong," said Redhawks defensive back Jack Jopes. "We played tougher than them tonight, and that was the goal all week."
Naperville Central forced three fumbles and blocked a punt, which helped negate the Falcons' powerful ground game led by running back Sam Singleton, who had 164 yards on 26 carries. It also negated a pair of interceptions by Falcons safety Jackson Gray.
Tied 7-7 after three quarters, the Redhawks took advantage of the second fumble recovered at Wheaton North's 34-yard line. After two runs by A.J. Deinhart, Naperville Central quarterback Payton Thorne scored on a 19-yard keeper to give his team a 14-7 lead 12 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Jopes recovered a fumble on Wheaton North's next possession, and the Redhawks held three more times on defense. Wheaton North, after a holding penalty on Naperville Central, had a final shot at the end zone with one second left at the Redhawks 16-yard line, but the pass was batted down to end the game.
"They're good defensively and they made us earn everything," said Falcons coach Joe Wardynski. "They outscored us but we played them pretty even. I told the kids they can be disappointed tonight but we still have a lot to play for."
Wheaton North had the ball for 18 of the 24 minutes in the first half but managed just a 7-7 tie on Singleton's 19-yard scoring run. A blocked punt by Braden Lindmark early in the second quarter, recovered by Michael Wang, set up Naperville Central at the 2-yard line. Jayden Reed eased into the end zone to tie the game.
"It's been a grind all year," said Redhawks coach Mike Stine. "We challenged our kids this week about being physical. People think we're a finesse team, but we really challenged them."
Naperville Central flipped the script on the Falcons in the second half, unleashing Deinhart 17 times for 102 yards. It was a pivotal change after the Redhawks ran only 11 first-half plays.
"We said at halftime that if we're going to win this game, we've got to be the more physical team," Deinhart said. "The guys up front, they just did a terrific job opening some holes for me."
Follow Kevin on Twitter