Lee's running, strong defense power Vernon Hills to victory
With just over six minutes left to play before halftime, Vernon Hills' defense faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 24-yard line. Niles North forced a fumble on its defensive possession and the Vikings were looking to score its first points of the night.
Niles North quarterback Caleb Swanson went under center and attempted to pick up the yard with a quarterback sneak, but the 6-foot-1, 210-pound quarterback met a wall of Cougars and was stopped for no gain.
After the Cougars' fourth-down stop, the offense went down the field on an 8-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a Nate Lee 36-yard touchdown run.
The Cougars' defense dominated all night in the 28-7 victory at Rust-Oleum Field.
Cougars coach Bill Bellecomo talked about the importance of playing complementary football.
"Those are the kind of things we talk about and are the kind of things that are back breakers," he said. "If we can get a big play on defense and then come right back and match it and score, I think that demoralizes some teams."
Another thing that can be demoralizing for an opposing defense is trying to stop Vernon Hills' rushing attack.
Lee finished the night with 181 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns.
"When I see a giant hole that I'm supposed to go through and see my offensive line blocking their butts off, it really pushes me to run the ball fast and run the ball hard," Lee said. "It makes me want to do whatever I can with the lanes they have given me."
For the Cougars other two touchdowns on the night, senior quarterback Jake Pieper had a part in making them happen.
On Vernon Hills' opening drive of the third quarter, Pieper ran the ball 5 times on the 7-play drive, which ended with Pieper's 16-yard touchdown run.
The Cougars' defense forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession, and Lee broke off an 86-yard run on the next play. Then, the senior running back finished the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
For the Cougars' first score of the game, the offense again relied on Lee to move down the field with Pieper hitting Erik Rimas for a 10-yard touchdown.
Niles North would end up scoring its only points of the game with Brunson Pervis' 80-yard touchdown run.
For Vernon Hills, the win made the Cougars playoff eligible at 5-2 and puts it one win away from an automatic berth, but Bellecomo wants his players to have a next game mentality with the season coming to a close.
"Let's not be satisfied with this, let's keep going," he said. " We have one more to guarantee a spot and another to hopefully get a home game. We're looking ahead and always looking to get better."