The Nazareth Academy football did its best to contain prolific Prairie Ridge quarterback Samson Evans in the Class 6A championship game of the IHSA playoffs Saturday afternoon at Huskie Stadium on the Northern Illinois University campus.
But, the Iowa-bound Evans rushed 35 times for 155 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and didn’t complete a pass. His ability to find the end zone in clutch moments, however, lifted the Wolves to a 28-21 win over the Roadrunners. A one-man wrecking crew, Evans also made a major impact on special teams with 160 return yards.
“Prairie Ridge had been putting up video game numbers and stockpiling yardage and touchdowns,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “Samson Evans is a gifted player and I thought we did a tremendous job isolating him. We probably did as good a job as any team this season defensively containing them.”
Nevertheless, Prairie Ridge (14-0) won its second straight state championship and extended its winning streak to 28 games.
With score tied at 21-21 late in the fourth quarter, Evans scored the game-winning touchdown on a four-yard run up the middle with 1:01 left in regulation. Evans set up his touchdown (third of of the game) with a 38-yard kickoff return on special teams.
Earlier in the game he scored twice, on a 78-yard punt return at the 8:50 mark of the second quarter (Prairie Ridge takes lead at 14-7) and a 5-yard TD run with 8:36 left in the fourth quarter (Prairie Ridge leads 21-14).
The Roadrunners showed their resilience throughout the game, responding to every Wolves’ touchdown except the last one.
“I thought we came out a little tight in the first half. It took us a while to shake the title game jitters,” Racki said. “At halftime we did a tremendous job regrouping. The coaches made adjustments, players relaxed and we played a great second half.”
After Prairie Ridge took a 7-0 lead on Jackson Willis’ 10-yard touchdown run, the Roadrunners’ Devin Blakeley answered with a 16-yard TD on the ground. Senior Bobby Grimes kicked the extra point to make the score 7-7 with 1:28 remaining in the first quarter.
The Wolves went ahead again on Evans’ aforementioned TD punt return, but Nazareth answered back with an 8-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 2:43 off the clock. Grimes threw a 30-yard pass over the middle to Michael Love who turned upfield and raced into the end zone.
Trailing 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter, the Roadrunners put together their most critical drive of the season. Nazareth moved 65 yards on nine plays, capped off by Grimes’ 7-yard TD run to tie the game a third time at 21-21.
When Evans scored again to give the Wolves a 28-21 advantage, Nazareth produced one more drive. The Roadrunners marched 70 yards in less than a minute. With the ball on the Prairie Ridge 12-yard line, Grimes threw a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by the Wolves’ Drew Norton in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter.
As effective as Evans was on the ground for the Wolves, Grimes did his damage in the air. The senior completed 22 of 32 passes for 296 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
His top two targets had huge games. Diamond Evans caught nine passes for 108 yards and Love finished with six receptions for 121 yards and a TD. Blakeley rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Defensively, Wesley Lones had a game-high 10.5 tackles for Nazareth. Teammates Alex Carrillo (6.5 tackles), Riley Theobald (5.5 tackles) and Jermaine Baker (5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) also played well.
The only areas Nazareth struggled in were penalties (10 for 74 yards) and, at times, special teams play.
The Roadrunners, who were vying for their third state championship in four years, finished the season with a 12-2 record. Nazareth also went 6-1 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.
With Saturday’s loss, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki is 6-1 in state finals. He went 4-0 as the head coach at Driscoll and has a 2-1 record at Nazareth. Racki has won a state title in four different classes.
Looking ahead to next season, Nazareth returns a ton of talent, notably top playmakers in Blakeley, Love, Diamond Evans and Josh Oglesby. Promising quarterbacks J.J. McCarthy and Teddy Olander are poised to replace Grimes.
Although the Roadrunners will miss Iowa State-bound Isaiah Lee, the bulk of the defense also returns next season.
“A lot of people were saying we will be really good the next few years due to our talent on the lower levels,” Racki said. “I’m not sure a lot of people picked us to go to the state final this year. Although the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, it’s always rewarding to play on Thanksgiving weekend especially in such a classic game.”