Cary-Grove wins classic, headed to Champaign
Great football games usually feature the same elements: Big plays and big drives, goal-line stands and last-minute heroics, trick plays and nail-biting finishes.
Saturday afternoon's Class 6A semifinal matchup between Cary-Grove and Notre Dame had all those things and more. It is destined to be a classic.
In the end, Cary-Grove came out on top, 28-21. They head to Champaign next weekend where, assuming they aren't too full of turkey, they'll get an opportunity to avenge their 2012 title-game loss to Crete-Monee when they square off with the Warriors for the Class 6A title at 1 p.m. in the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium.
The game had seven lead changes. One of a head coach's most tired cliches is, "the team that had the ball last was going to win." This time it was true -- almost.
"We thought we could move the ball and really felt like, outside of a couple of plays, we controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half and could move the ball," said Trojans coach Brad Seaburg. "In the second half ... they chewed up the clock and we only had the ball three times in the second half. But we scored a couple of touchdowns and that was huge.
"We knew it was going to be like this. We knew they were going to try to chew up the clock and that every possession was going to matter. And it did, big time."
The Trojans only had the ball three times in the second half, but they scored on two of them and the third possession was one they'll never forget.
Trailing the Dons 21-20 with just 3:45 left in the game and starting at his own 20, Cary-Grove quarterback Ben McDonald engineered a breathtaking 11-play drive to reach the end zone with 20.3 seconds left on the clock. McDonald broke loose for 20 yards on the drive's second play, but Danny Daigle was the man when it counted.
After another 20-yard gain by Blake Skol (139 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries) gave Cary-Grove a first down at the Notre Dame 23 with less than a minute to play, Daigle picked up 8 more yards on a sweep.
Zach Perrone (7 carries, 47 yards) picked up 10 to make it 1st-and-goal at the Dons' 5 with 24 seconds left. Daigle then took a McDonald pitchout left and raced for the end zone, diving in with 20.3 seconds left. He converted the 2-point conversion on almost the identical play to all but seal it, 28-21.
"The plays (we were running) were working, so we just kept getting to the outside and making big plays," explained Daigle, who added, "There's no way to describe the way this feels. We've been dreaming about this since we were so young."
Daigle ended up with 59 crucial yards on only six carries and caught three of McDonald's four completions for another 54. He also had the defensive play of the game -- but more on that later.
Notre Dame (10-3) was led, as it was most of the season, by standout senior everything back Ty Gavin, who ended his career with 146 well-earned yards on 29 carries.
Quarterback McDonald led the Trojans, in the truest sense of the word. On a cold, cloudy, windswept afternoon that saw both teams eschew the aerial attack, the 6-2, 190-pound senior threw the ball just a half-dozen times and completed 4 for 56 yards. But he carried the ball 20 times for 92 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns while making rock-solid decisions running Cary-Grove's option offense.
The first quarter was dominated by amazingly similar scoring drives, Cary-Grove took the opening kickoff and marched 72 yards on a dozen plays, the last a 1-yard scoring plunge by Skol. But Nathan Splitt missed the extra point to the left. Notre Dame turned right around and mounted a 62-yard scoring drive of its own, the capper coming on a 7-yard slant right by Gavin. Danny Simon made the kick to make it 7-6 Notre Dame.
That slim lead was short lived, however. On the second snap of the ensuing possession, Skol went up the middle then broke left and took off on a 67-yard jaunt to the Dons' 2. McDonald scored on the next play before Skol was stopped short on the deuce conversion to make it 12-7 Trojans after one quarter.
Gavin scored his second of three touchdowns with 7:40 left in the first half when he took a handoff right at the Trojans' 24, broke a tackle by Cary-Grove safety Michael Boy at the 20, and then raced in the rest of the way.
Cary-Grove threatened to break it open late in the second quarter. After another long march, this one starting from their own 31, McDonald ran it 9 yards to give the Trojans a first-and-goal at the 9. Three plays later, facing 4th-and-goal at the 1, the Dons' defense stood tall and proud, stopping Skol for no gain to get the ball back and secure their 14-12 halftime lead.
The visitors wrested the lead back on their first possession of the third quarter. A 35-yard pass from McDonald to Daigle that seemed to be securely in the hands of Notre Dame defensive back Sean Pozner somehow slipped through and Daigle snared it to give the Trojans a first down at the Dons' 15. Two plays later McDonald did the honors, this time from 8 yards out, and then connected with Quinn Priester for the two-point conversion to put Cary-Grove up 20-14.
On the Dons' ensuing possession, facing 4th-and-2 anther own 45, Notre Dame coach Mike Hennessey called for a fake point. It worked and kept the drive alive. After a reverse to Julian Schurr (11 carries, 70 yards) picked up 22 yards to the Cary-Grove 20, Gavin did it again. This time he spun away from two seemingly sure tackles to find the end zone and put the Dons back on top, 21-20, after three quarters.
Then came Daigle's defensive masterpiece. After a monstrous drive from their own 34 that required 16 plays and took roughly eight minutes off the clock, Gavin tried a tricky jump pass from the wildcat formation on 3rd-and-goal from the 1 that Daigle amazingly sniffed out and intercepted in the end zone for a touchback.
This Trojans team is the fifth in school history to get to 13-0. After the game Seaburg asked them if they would be the third to go 14-0. In one week, they'll know.