Defenses, special teams make major impact in opening round

  • Naperville Central's Ethan Pytlak (52) tackles Naperville North's Zeke A Williams during last week's win in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs. The Redhawks' defense was a big key to the victory, and they will be challenged again this week when they face No. 1 seed Loyola.

    Naperville Central's Ethan Pytlak (52) tackles Naperville North's Zeke A Williams during last week's win in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs. The Redhawks' defense was a big key to the victory, and they will be challenged again this week when they face No. 1 seed Loyola. Sean King/for the Daily Herald

By Gregg Voss
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 11/2/2021 10:55 AM

It's true that you need offense to win games in the IHSA football playoffs, but remember, there are three phases in football. Defense and special teams played as large a role in local teams' playoff victories last weekend.

Consider Naperville Central center kick returner Reggie Fleurima's punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter of the Redhawks' 28-16 Class 8A victory over crosstown rival Naperville North.


Fans may have fixated on Fleurima's fleet feet, but there was a lot more to that play, insisted Naperville Central coach Mike Ulreich.

There was senior Tristen Hall's key block early in that return, while senior Ty Randle blocked not one, but two, defenders late, which allowed Fleurima to hit pay dirt.

"Playing great special teams is an extension of your defense," Ulreich said, but it wasn't just the kick return crew that shined.

He pointed to the yeoman's work done by the defensive line, manned by guys like senior defensive ends Brian McInerney and Alex Noto and sophomore defensive end Maverick Ohle, which he said improved since the first two times the teams played, a 38-27 Naperville North victory that ruined Central's homecoming.

McInerney said attention to detail was the name of the game in the teams' second go-round.

"We worked on getting our pad level low and firing off the ball and making sure we weren't getting driven back like the last time," he said. "If you can establish the line of scrimmage, when you get that drive on the O-linemen, we're able to slow down the running game."

There's more. McInerney said that the watershed moment in the second Naperville North game was when the Redhawks' defense held and forced the Huskies to kick a field goal.

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Even though they were down 10-7, "we knew it was a bend-but-don't-break mentality. If we could keep them to three-and-out and not let them run all over us, if we could hunker down and get the stops on third and fourth down, we'd be all right."

Naperville Central's defense will have an even bigger task at 1 p.m. Saturday at home -- a second-round date with offensive juggernaut Loyola, which is top-ranked in 8A.

Willowbrook's Luczak huge on special teams

If you're looking for solid special teams play, consider a guy like Willowbrook senior receiver Rocco Luczak, who fell on not one, but two fumbled onside kicks in a Class 7A first-round 44-0 victory Friday over Chicago Whitney Young. He also had a key solo tackle on another kickoff.

"Whenever he's got an opportunity to be on the field, he takes advantage and plays really hard," Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth said.


Luczak said that Hildreth and his assistants are always harping on executing in all three phases. That means if one phase isn't doing so, the rest of the team struggles.

He said his first onside fumble recovery was almost a surprise to him as the play developed.

"It's funny, because he kicked it, (the ball) was bouncing and it was a muddy day on a grass field," he said. "It started rolling and rolling. I saw a guy running to get the ball and it bounced off his knee. Before I knew it, I was like, I'm going to fall on it."

Indeed he did -- twice. Both times, Willowbrook went on to score.

That's production.

Glenbard South's seamless defense:

Like Naperville Central's McInerney, Glenbard South senior defensive tackle Connor Murphy digs talking about the nuance of his position.

"My main goal when I'm playing D-line is get my hands on my guy and make sure the line of scrimmage is pushed back," said Murphy, who's 235 pounds, a far cry from the 180-pound frame he entered high school with. "That's not just the goal for me, but all the guys. I think. It's the big thing with our D-line coach; we want to emphasize physicality."

Murphy, of whom Glenbard South coach Ryan Crissey calls "a wrecking ball," also appears to be a numbers guy, and there were a few that stood out in the Raiders' 41-14 victory over Chicago Bulls Prep last Friday in a Class 5A first-round contest.

"We were kind of daring them to throw the ball," he said. "The way we really won that game is that 90 percent of their runs was a one-yard max. Their biggest running play was like 20 yards."

Added junior defensive lineman Owen DiFranco: "For Bulls Prep, it was a lot of film, including the O-line and D-line, we had several film sessions together. It's huge. If you're able to study your guy and break down his pass protection and blocks before the game, you're able to do better."

Peacock steps in for Wheaton Academy:

Wheaton Academy hosted the first home playoff game in school history last Friday, a 36-3 win over Coal City. In that contest, starting strong safety David Dorn was nursing an ankle injury, so junior Breck Peacock -- who hadn't played the position much all season -- stepped in and did the job.

"It was our first playoff game, but coming into gametime, (defensive coordinator) Justin Swider came up to me and said, You're starting," Peacock said. "It was a little intimidating. I remember the first drive; I wanted to make sure I was in the right spot."

He was. Coal City quarterback Braden Reilly passed to running back Nick Seplak on that first drive and Peacock drilled him.

"After that play, my nerves settled," he said.

"Breck Peacock and his teammates were coached up really well," Warriors' coach Jim Johanik said. "You're sitting on the sideline all season on defense, and you're called to step up in a playoff game and did what he did ... He had the talent and he was coached up well in order to play."

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