Burlington Central quarterback Ryan Ritchie made the right read, but he didn't execute the pass.
St. Francis cornerback Michael Hanson made him pay dearly.
Hanson intercepted Ritchie's errant throw and ran the other way for a momentum-changing 70-yard interception return that helped propel No. 8 St. Francis to a 27-10 victory over the No. 9 Rockets in a Class 5A first-round playoff game at the College of DuPage Saturday night.
St. Francis (8-2) led 14-7 at halftime, but Burlington Central (7-3) trimmed the deficit with a 23-yard field goal by Cody Wallace, capping a 75-yard drive fueled by the tough running of junior running back Joel Bouagon (23 carries, 169 yards).
The Rockets again rode Bouagnon on their next possession. He carried 5 times until their march bogged down at the St. Francis 36-yard line.
Facing fourth-and-13, the Burlington Central lined up in punt formation. Ritchie, also the team's punter, saw an opening he thought he could take advantage of, so he shifted Central into a gator offensive formation, as he is taught to do.
"Once they showed that they were going for it the quarterback kind of looked over to my zone," Hanson said. "I just read his eyes and I knew he was going to throw my way."
Indeed, Ritchie threw toward an open receiver in the slot, but the ball sailed and Hanson made the interception at his own 30-yard line. The 5-foot-11, 150-pound junior raced up the left sideline and avoided a tackle at the Central 25-yard line to complete the game-changing play, which gave St. Francis a 20-10 lead with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
"I saw the (slot) guy had a lot of room and I thought I could get it to him," Ritchie said. "I overshot him by a ton and their cornerback made a great play on it and intercepted the ball.
"I knew I should have just punted it away. It was my decision, and I didn't throw it as well as I should have."
"We practice that and we tell him that's what he's supposed to do," Rockets coach Rich Crabel said. "He just didn't quite get it where it was supposed to go. That was a big one."
Hanson was in the right place. "I just stayed in my zone, read the play, picked it off and went all the way," he said. "It was a momentum changer and we started going from there."
The playoff victory is the first for St. Francis since the Spartans won the Class 5A state title in 2008. They were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round each of the past two seasons by conference rival Montini, which went on to win the title each year. Next week, in the second round, the Spartans will travel to No. 1 seed and undefeated Kaneland.
"There was a little pressure to get past that first-round curse," St. Francis quarterback Nick Donati said.
It also marks just the fourth time in school history St. Francis has won at least 8 games in a single season, a feat accomplished only by the Spartans of 2008, 2000 and 1968.
Donati helped seal the game in the fourth quarter. First, he intercepted an underthrown halfback-option pass by Bouagnon at the St. Francis 37-yard line. Three plays later he kept on a bootleg right and sprinted 57 yards for the final touchdown with 6:30 left in the game.
"We got some pulling guards out there, (wide receiver) Jay Ferguson made a great block on the corner and it was just daylight to the end zone," Donati said.
St. Francis controlled the first half. The Spartans outgained the Rockets 222 yards to 75, led by junior running back Jack Petrando. He gained 90 of his team-high 112 yards in the first two quarters.
St. Francis took a 7-0 lead on a 19-yard pass from Donati to Ferguson less than two minutes into the game. The short drive set up by Petrando's kick return to the Central 47-yard line.
The Rockets tied the game at 7-7 with 4:01 left in the opening quarter when Bouagnon powered his way in from 4 yards out. That touchdown was set up by a 31-yard keeper by Ritchie.
St. Francis reclaimed the lead two possession later by driving 90 yards in 11 plays, keyed by a 23-yard catch and run by Jeff Rutkowski and Petrando's 15-yard run to the 1-yard line. Petrando bulled his way into the end zone for a touchdown on the next play to put the Spartans ahead with 7:25 left in the half.
Central twice kept the Spartans from adding to their advantage in the second quarter. They stuffed Petrando for a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-2 from the Central 7-yard line, and Joe Breeden intercepted Donati in the end zone just before halftime.
However, Hanson's interception turned the tide and helped St. Francis advance.
It was the end of the run for Burlington Central's first playoff squad since 2007.
"It was great for our seniors," Crabel said of the playoff appearance. "That class worked hard for four years. It's a big bunch. I don't remember the last time we had that many seniors on our football team. They're a great group of kids.
"We put some things together with our staff, our kids just bought into what we were trying to do and did what we were asking them to do."