Lyons Township High School junior quarterback Ryan Jackson was thrust into his starting role late in the 2021 football season. That included the Lions’ first-round 35-10 IHSA Class 8A state playoff loss at eventual state champion Lockport.

Jackson and the Lions are in a much better place for their playoff return.

The starter since day one in 2022, Jackson threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns Oct. 28, one of several great performances that carried the Lions to a 26-17 first-round home victory over Naperville Central.

“It was a lot different this one,” Jackson said. “I feel the crowd was there to help us. [In 2021] I was there for half the season so more experience. That Lockport game gave me experience for this game.” 

The No. 14-seeded Lions (8-2) earned their first playoff victory since 2016. They now play at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 at undefeated No. 3 Plainfield North (10-0), which beat Naperville Central 19-9 in Week 2 and has limited nine opponents to 14 points or fewer, six to single digits.

“They know that we haven’t won a playoff game since 2016,” LTHS coach Jon Beutjer said. “I feel like they felt a little pressure, but the message to them all week was to just play football. To get this win for our program is a big one. You host a playoff game and that’s a good team.”

The Lions responded with perhaps their best half all season.

They stormed to a 24-7 halftime lead with scores on all four of their drives — a 30-yard field goal by David Waight, an 11-yard touchdown run by Danny Pasko and touchdown passes to Travis Stamm (26 yards) and Graham Smith (3 yards).

Beutjer tactically used timeouts to regain possession with 37 seconds left in the half, and Jackson immediately hit Caleb Greer with a 33-yard pass to the 3. 

Then the Lions needed to come through late when No. 19 Naperville Central (6-4) tried to rally.

Trailing 24-17, the Redhawks had the ball at their 33 with 3:24 left but only reached the 40 and turned the ball over on downs. 

They got one last chance with 1:10 left, but they started at their 2 after a fourth-down hooch punt by Jackson in a quarterback formation that was downed by Stamm.

On the first play, senior and two-way standout Danny Pasko was about to get his third sack as quarterback Chris McCormack threw the ball away in the end zone. The intentional grounding penalty in the end zone resulted in a game-clinching safety.

“I didn’t know it was a safety. Everyone was going crazy, coming off the field. I didn’t know what happened,” Pasko said. “I was like, ‘OK. I’ll take it.’ That felt awesome.”

In the first half, the Lions outgained Naperville Central 262-77, including all of  Jackson’s passing yards.

“I’d say it was one my best halves this year,” Jackson said. “Everybody helped me out to make it my best half of the year.” 

Pasko, part of the running platoon after an injury to Jack Cheney, rushed for 85 yards. Smith caught four passes for 54 yards.   

The Yale-bound Smith also was a member of the LTHS boys basketball team’s sectional final run this past season.

“No one expected us to be doing this, too,” said the Yale-bound Smith. “It’s even better when no one expects you to do it. We’re showing everyone what LT’s about.”