By Melvin Tate
Survive and advance. That's the adage that college basketball teams say when participating in March Madness. No matter how ugly a victory may be in the NCAA tournament, the idea is to move one step closer towards a championship.
The same adage applies to the IHSA state football tournament. And Saturday afternoon in LaGrange Park, Nazareth Academy overcame a shaky start to gradually pull away for a 49-21 Class 7A second-round victory over Thornton.
"Their quarterback [Derrick Williams, Jr.] was really good," said Nazareth head coach Tim Racki. "Give him credit...he was tough. It took us a while to catch up to him and getting the momentum right before halftime was huge."
1Q: On the game's second play from scrimmage, Nazareth QB J.J. McCarthy (11-of-16, 215 yards, 1 TD) completed a pass to Tyler Morris. However, he fumbled while attempting to evade a Thornton defender, and Wildcats' LB Deontae Collins scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Roadrunners' 49-yard line. From there, it took seven plays for Thornton to hit pay dirt, capping the drive with a 25-yard TD pass from Williams to Dionte Battle. Axel Fonseca's PAT was blocked, however, leaving the score 6-0 at the 9:12 mark.
It took just 48 seconds for the Roadrunners (11-0) to respond, as RB Derrick Strongs, Jr. erupted for a 56-yard TD burst. Andrew Hughes' PAT gave Nazareth a 7-6 edge.
But the lead wouldn't last long as the Wildcats (8-3) countered with a 10-play, 65-yard scoring march, culminating in Williams's second TD toss (this one from 22 yards to Grant Alexander, Jr). The duo connected on the two-point conversion attempt, giving Thornton a 14-7 advantage.
Nazareth came roaring back in six plays, as Morris (six receptions, 131 yards) atoned for his earlier fumble by snagging a McCarthy pass on a middle slant route before going to the house for a 42-yard TD to evening the score at 14.
2Q: The teams traded multiple stops throughout most of the second quarter. But with about two minutes left before halftime, Malik Poe-Roland and Lukas Salaviejus teamed up for a sack of Williams on third down to quell a potential Thornton threat, and the play energized the Nazareth sideline.
"I exploded off the ball, and I saw Malik crashing in. The quarterback panicked, and Malik grabbed his legs," Salaviejus said. "That's exactly what we do in practice. We call ourselves "The Kingdom," and we want to be beasts out there. That play got us hyped up."
McCarthy then hit Isaiah Emanuel for a 47-yard completion that set up the Roadrunners at the Thornton 6-yard line. Two plays later, Strongs scored on a 5-yard run around left tackle to give Nazareth a 21-14 halftime lead.
3Q: Strongs broke off a 60-yard TD run to start things off in the second half for Nazareth. After another Nazareth defensive stop, he scored his fourth TD of the afternoon, going in from four yards out, raising the Roadrunners' lead to 35-14.
"After every run, I told the linemen that if they kept blocking well, I was going to run my heart out for them. That's what I did," said Strongs, who ended the day with 151 yards on 10 carries. "It all starts with them; if they don't do their jobs, there's no way I could run and J.J. could throw."
4Q: The Roadrunners stopped Thornton on downs at their own 27 early in the fourth before putting the game on ice with a six-play, 73-yard march. Alex Carrillo (eight carries, 99 yards) scored on a one-yard TD plunge set up by his 42-yard dash on the previous play.
Later, Nazareth's Amarion Evans would add a 9-yard touchdown run in which he bowled over a Thornton defender. Williams and Alexander would connect for another 22-yard touchdown pass to conclude the scoring.
Facing a Thornton roster stacked with two-way players, and Racki felt that Nazareth's depth eventually wore down the Wildcats.
"I've had teams that had a lot of two-way guys, and it's hard to maintain that intensity -- especially when you're a lineman -- at the 7A level," he said. "Taking advantage of them being a bit gassed while our guys could come off and get rest contributed [to the win]."
Nazareth hosts Batavia (9-2) in a Class 7A quarterfinal Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. It's a rematch of last year's thrilling semifinal that was won by the Roadrunners 47-28.
"Batavia is incredible, it's one of the elite programs in the state," he said. "They're physical and always have great lines. They play power football and are loaded every year. When you get to the quarterfinals, you better be ready to buckle it up."