One side will have dreams and the other nightmares, but they'll focus on the same thing.
Fourth and short.
It proved to be critical in Naperville Central's 35-14 victory over visiting West Aurora in Friday's opening round of the Class 8A football playoffs.
The 13th-seeded Redhawks stopped No. 20 West Aurora nine times on fourth down, none more important than a fourth-and-2 situation at Naperville Central's 16-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
A West Aurora (7-3) touchdown there would have cut the deficit to one score. Instead the Redhawks (8-2) held and marched 84 yards on five A.J. Deinhart runs. His 9-yard touchdown romp boosted the advantage to a much more comfortable 35-14.
"We pride ourselves on getting stops on big downs," said Redhawks defensive lineman Lavar Archibald. "We feel if we get the offense back on the field, we've got athletes across the board. If we get the ball in their hands, they're going to do good things."
The Redhawks burst to a 28-0 second-quarter lead, scoring on their first four possessions while taking advantage of a fumble and a fourth-down stop at West Aurora's 38-yard line. The Blackhawks looked like they might get blown out, but they pulled within 28-7 by halftime and scored on the opening possession of the third quarter to make it 28-14.
Naperville Central ran only three plays in the third quarter on a drive that ended in a fumble. West Aurora drove into the red zone before being held on the critical fourth-down play.
"We just got off to a slow start," said Blackhawks running back Camron Donatlan. "Our coaches just told us to play hard and play our hearts out and leave it all on the field. We just tried our best tonight."
With a pair of receivers out due to injury, the Redhawks leaned on Deinhart, who rushed for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries. Payton Thorne threw a touchdown pass to Cade McDonald and 2 scoring strikes to Jayden Reed. The second to Reed, a 76-yarder, accounted for Naperville Central's lone first down of the second quarter.
"The frustrating part for us was the turnovers and the three-and-outs," said Redhawks offensive lineman Luke Hallstrom. "As an offense I think we're better than that. We had to bounce back a little bit. After watching our defense get a couple of stops, it motivated us."
Donatlan, who rushed for 81 yards, scored on an 11-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter to stem the Redhawks' momentum. The Blackhawks opened the third quarter with a 12-play drive -- including a pair of fourth-down conversions -- capped by William Tammaru's 10-yard touchdown toss to JaQuan Buchanan on fourth-and-3.
"I'm proud of the kids," said Blackhawks coach Nate Eimer. "It's a tough way to start against a good football team like that. These kids hung in there."
West Aurora ran 77 plays to only 45 by Naperville Central, and the Redhawks had 85 penalty yards compared to 15 by West Aurora. Turnovers were even at two apiece and Naperville Central had a slim 329-301 yardage advantage.
All that mattered, though, was the decisive margin on the scoreboard. Naperville Central advances to play at No. 4 Homewood-Flossmoor (9-1), likely another Friday night game.
"Give them credit, they made it difficult for us," said Redhawks coach Mike Stine. "Overall the goal is to survive and move on, and we were able to do that."
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