ALEDO -- Bend, but don't break.|
That's the motto the Mercer County defensive corps has lived by all season, and has made into a truism. While the Golden Eagles have bent at various times during their 13-0 run to the IHSA Class 2A state football finals, they have yet to break.
A sequence of events in the middle of Saturday's 26-7 semifinal victory over Clifton Central at George Pratt Memorial Field showed that mentality that has become a binding force.
Up 13-7 late in the second quarter, but with the Comets driving in a bid to retake the lead by halftime, the Eagles allowed Central to get deep into the red zone. However, on a fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line, quarterback J.R. Caspary's pass was incomplete to preserve the Mercer County edge.
Next, Central took the ball to start the second half and put together another long drive behind the running of its senior star Logan Gigl. But on a fourth-and-1 from the Eagles' 30-yard line, a host of Mercer County tackles stopped Lucas Blume for no gain. Ten plays later, the hosts were scoring to go up 19-7 and all but punch their ticket to Champaign.
"At that moment, we knew that was a big game-changer,'' said senior tackle Landon McIntosh. "Something like that is hard to come back from. That killed their momentum and put a lot of wind into our sails.''
And even though Gigl got his yards -- 160 on 34 carries -- the Eagle defenders were able to keep him out of the end zone as well as adjust to the passing of Caspary, who hit on 6-of-9 passes for 61 yards in the first half but could complete just 3-of-11 for 12 yards in the second, with Bryce Skiles coming up with an interception.
"We expected them to give the ball to Gigl a lot,'' said Mercer County junior linebacker Chris Neeld. "We didn't anticipate they'd pass as much, but by the end of the first half, we'd figured it out. And, that was a huge play (in the third); it really swung the momentum in our direction.''
Through 13 games, the Golden Eagles have given up 100 points -- just over a touchdown per game. On Saturday, if you take away Gigl's 160 yards, they held the Comets (11-2) to 103 offensive yards.
"Our whole scheme was to limit the damage,'' said Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel. "The kids knew (Gigl) would get his yards; he might even score. We were disappointed to give up that first touchdown, but with them getting only one TD, it puts it in persepective. Our kids rose to the occasion and fought hard.''
Keeping Gigl out of the end zone, in Zunkel's eyes, was the icing on a day of celebration for his football team.
"The big guys up front did a fantastic job,'' he said, "and to hold Gigl to no points, that was just awesome.''
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