Riverside-Brookfield High School running back Nathaniel Padilla looks for an opening in the Morton defensive line during the Bulldogs’ 35-28 win in Berwyn on Aug. 26. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

A banged-up ankle wasn’t going to stop Ryan Novak when his team needed him. Novak carried the ball on seven of nine plays during a fourth-quarter, 78-yard touchdown drive that gave the Riverside-Brookfield High School a 35-28 win over Morton in Berwyn on Aug. 26.

Novak, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior, rambled into the end zone from five yards out with 3:15 remaining for the winning touchdown. The season-opening win was also the first for Sam Styler, the Bulldogs’ new head coach.

“I just knew we had to make plays, push the ball down the field and score,” said Novak of the final drive. “I banged up my ankle a little bit but had to shake it off and run forward, run straight, run them over.” 

Novak gained 125 yards on 17 carries and ran for three touchdowns in the game, including a 47-yard dash in the first quarter to open the scoring. He also scored on an eight-yard run with 8:54 left in the second quarter to put the Bulldogs up 21-0. Novak, who also plays linebacker, has added 30 pounds of muscle since last year, making an already rugged runner even stronger.

“I just put my shoulder down and try to run them over,” Novak said.

Styler and new offensive coordinator Brad Vojcak have tweaked the Bulldog offense to emphasize the running game. Under former head coach Brendan Curtin, the Bulldogs (1-0) often emphasized a precision short-passing game. But at Morton junior quarterback Diego Gutierrez only threw only nine passes and the Bulldogs relied on power inside running behind an experienced offensive line.

“We got a new offensive coordinator this year and he loves to run the ball,” Novak said. “I would prefer to have the ball in my hands, so I’m enjoying it a lot.”

Like most running backs Novak gave credit for his big night to his offensive line. 

“They create the holes,” Novak said. “I just run through them.”

Although the Bulldogs ran out to a 21-0 second quarter lead, Morton fought back in the second half to tie the game 28-28 with 7:54 left in the fourth quarter before the Bulldogs put together their game-winning drive.

Even after Novak’s score, it took an interception by senior defensive back Iggy Bielobradek at the Bulldogs’ 13-yard line with 28 seconds left to assure the win.

“When I saw the ball in the air, I knew it was mine,” Bielobradek said. “It was coming my way. I messed up before. It wasn’t going to happen again.”

The mistake Bielobradek was referring to was dropping what would have been a sure touchdown pass that would have given the Bulldogs a 28-0 lead in the second quarter after Gio Gonzalez had recovered an onside kick. Bielobradek beat his defender on a streak pattern down the right sideline but dropped Gutierrez’s pass.

Gonzalez recovered a fumble in the first quarter to set up a three-yard touchdown run by Jack Grivetti that gave the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead with 2:34 left in the first quarter. Gonzalez, a 5-5, 168-pound senior defensive end, epitomizes the Bulldogs’ small but quick defense.

“One of the smallest guys on the field, but he has one of the biggest hearts you can ever imagine,” Styler said of Gonzalez.

Another undersized defender, Drew Swiatek, a 5-11, 170-pound linebacker, made tackles everywhere before a lower leg injury kept him on the sideline during Morton’s final drive.

“He’s one of the leaders we lean on, the dude is all over the field, he’s unbelievable,” Styler said.

The Bulldogs’ 3-5 defensive alignment emphasizes swarming to the football rather than brute strength.

“Want to beat them with speed, that’s our goal,” Styler said.

Styler, an intense, fiery young coach, was thrilled to win his first game as the varsity head coach. 

“We’ll take it any way we can,” Styler said. “It wasn’t perfect, but the kids battled. If you look at the injuries our kids were going through, our kids battled their asses off all night. It was awesome to see.”

Getting Styler a win in his first game as head coach was important to the players and they knew that it was important to get the season off to a good start before traveling to Wauconda on Sept. 2.

“It’s huge,” Bielobradek said. “We’re happy for our coach and it’s obviously a rivalry, so it feels great.”