DeKALB -- No matter what fashion, Prairie Ridge senior quarterback Samson Evans had the ball in his hands as much as possible in Saturday afternoon's Class 6A championship game against Nazareth at NIU's Huskie Stadium.
The Wolves' dynamic playmaker made his presence felt as both a punt and kick returner, and a 4-yard touchdown run on his 35th carry of the contest gave Prairie Ridge a 28-21 lead with 1:01 remaining in regulation.
As they had done three times previously in the contest, the feisty Roadrunners attempted to answer, frantically driving down to the Wolves' 13-yard line with 7 seconds left, but Drew Norton's interception at the goal line as time expired sealed the Wolves' 28th straight victory and consecutive 14-0 state championship seasons.
"It means a lot for us as a senior class to lay our legacy down and show everyone how good we really are and end it on a great note," said the Iowa-bound Evans, who finished with 155 yards rushing against the stout Nazareth defense. "We knew when we got the ball back with 5 minutes to go that we had a chance of scoring if we held onto the ball."
"I thought after our Cary game I went through the most exciting game I've ever coached until today. This game was unbelievable," said Wolves head coach Chris Schremp.
"I was so proud of our team on all three levels -- our 11 guys just playing their hearts out. It's been our mantra since the playoffs started to play for each other, play together, and that's what you saw tonight."
After Nazareth (12-2) engineered an impressive 9-play, 65-yard drive to even the contest at 21-21 with 5:03 left, Evans managed to field the kickoff in a crowd and broke free for a 38-yard return down to the Roadrunners' 38.
"I was running right into the back of one of our players blocking and bounced outside. I saw and opening and took it," Evans said.
"The return was such a huge play because now we're in four down territory," Schremp said.
With Zach Gulbransen chipping in with a key 13-yard run, Evans carried 6 times for 23 yards to put the Wolves back in front.
Nazareth senior quarterback Bobby Grimes, who completed 22-of-32 passes for 296 yards passing, covered 67 yards in 54 seconds to give the Roadrunners a final chance, but Norton stepped in front of a Grimes' pass to close out the game in style.
"I just read the quarterback's eyes. He kept throwing in general the same routes and I read it perfectly and got the pick," said Norton, who rejoined the team this season after electing not to play last year. "This whole experience, this season all together is by far the most memorable thing that will ever happen in my life."
Special teams and penalties played a huge role in the outcome as Nazareth outgained the Wolves 389-262, but was flagged 10 times for 74 yards and had a pair of touchdowns negated by penalties.
Prairie Ridge received a huge break on the Roadrunners' opening series as 5-foot-9 speedster Devin Blakely turned the left corner and appeared to scamper for a 74-yard touchdown. However, the score was nullified as Nazareth was flagged for an illegal block in the back well behind the play at the Wolves' 36.
Prairie Ridge forced a punt and capitalized with an impressive 7-play, 70 yard scoring drive. Evans and Gulbransen combined for 50 rushing yards before Jackson Willis raced in over right guard from 10 yards out with 4:45 left in the opening quarter.
The Roadrunners answered with a 59-yard drive to even the score, highlighted by a 25-yard strike over the middle from Grimes to Diamond Evans followed by Blakely's 16-yard dash into the end zone.
With the Nazareth coaching box calling for a directional punt to keep the ball away from Evans, the Roadrunners mistakenly punted straight to Evans, who found a seam in the middle and broke left on an electrifying 78-yard punt return touchdown to restore a 14-7 Wolves lead with 8:50 left in the half.
"Honestly I was pretty close to fair catching it, then I saw how far they were away from me. I caught it and took a cut and I was gone. It was crazy," Evans said.
The Wolves had a chance to seize control in the third quarter after Sam Concialdi's interception gave Prairie Ridge excellent field position at the Wolves' 40, but a methodical 11-play 49-yard drive stalled at the Roadrunner 11. Facing 4th-and-2, the Wolves elected to attempt a 28-yard field goal, but Kyle Kohlblinger missed wide left.
"I thought about going for it there, but I had a lot of confidence in Kyle to make that kick," Schremp said.
Grimes caught fire on the ensuing drive, completing 5 passes for 91 yards. Despite having a potential 55-yard touchdown pass negated by another block in the back and being sacked by Joe Perhats for a 16-yard loss, Grimes found a wide-open Michael Love on a 30-yard touchdown strike late in the third quarter.
Evans put Prairie Ridge back in front 21-14 with 8:34 left on a 5-yard touchdown run, capping an 80-yard drive that was aided by a pair of Nazareth personal fouls.
The Wolves won without completing a pass as Evans attempted just one throw. Gulbransen finished with 62 yards on 10 carries while Willis added 45 yards rushing on 10 attempts. Love and Diamond Evans combined for 15 receptions and 229 yards for the Roadrunners while Blakely added 64 yards on the ground.
"They have a really good defense -- they hit really hard and they're fast to the ball," Samson Evans said. "The biggest thing was just reading keys and knowing where they were at and running where they're not. In practice, I had four plays to choose from and I had to choose from there based on what I saw."