By Melvin Tate
In a highly anticipated rematch from last season's playoffs, J.J. McCarthy threw for three touchdown passes to lift Nazareth Academy to a 38-24 victory over Batavia in an IHSA Class 7A football quarterfinal Saturday at Valenta Stadium in LaGrange Park. The win marks the third consecutive season that the Roadrunners (12-0) have reached the state tournament semifinals.
"I thought we played tremendous in the first half. We really came out focused and locked in," said Nazareth coach Tim Racki. "But Batavia is such a great program and they're never going to go away. Our offense did an incredible job and defensively I thought we did great stopping their run game, which worried me all week."
1Q: Nazareth couldn't have asked for a better start than it got on Saturday. After the defense recorded a three-and-out on Batavia's opening possession -- and getting gifted great field position at the Bulldogs' 38-yard line due to a shanked punt, the Roadrunners found the house in just four plays as Derrick Strongs Jr. (10 rushes, 79 yards) did the honors with a 4-yard run. However, Andrew Hughes missed the PAT, keeping the score 6-0 Nazareth about three minutes into the game.
After the Nazareth defense got another quick stop, McCarthy (16 of 30, 241 yards passing) connected with Tyler Morris (4 receptions, 83 yards) on a 22-yard touchdown reception to raise the Roadrunners' lead to 13-0 at the 5:25 mark.
"It was huge to get off to a quick start," McCarthy said. "Both the offense and defense came out strong."
"Their defense is so good, they make you make changes to what you traditionally do," said Batavia coach Dennis Piron. "We came out and didn't do anything offensively, and that put us in a hole we were in all game."
2Q: Hughes' 24-yard field goal capped a 12-play, 72-yard scoring march and gave Nazareth a 16-0 early in the second quarter. But Batavia (9-3) responded by driving 66 yards in 8 plays, finishing things with Quinn Urweiler's 4-yard touchdown run that made the score 16-7 at the 6:28 mark. A North Dakota recruit, Urweiler finished with 88 yards on 16 rushes.
"[Urweiler] is the best player I've seen in a long time," said Racki. "He's a stud that plays the game the right way and has a high motor. I'm really impressed with him."
Back came Nazareth as McCarthy connected with Landon Morris (6 receptions, 82 yards) three times for 38 yards on a 9-play drive that culminated with a 17-yard touchdown grab by Tanner Koziol -- caught as he was falling backwards. However, the two-point conversion failed, keeping the score 22-7 with 3:07 left in the half.
The Bulldogs drove into Roadrunner territory on the next drive, but Nazareth's C.J. West strip-sacked Batavia quarterback Kyle Oroni, and Marcus Griffin recovered the fumble to quell the threat.
3Q: The Bulldogs attempted to surprise Nazareth with an onside kick to begin the second half, but the ball rolled out of bounds at the Batavia 49, and the Roadrunners took advantage as McCarthy found Landon Morris for a 22-yard touchdown pass. Another missed PAT kept the score 28-7. Even so, it seemed like Nazareth was on the verge of pulling away.
However, the Bulldogs immediately got back into the game on the ensuing kickoff as Sam Barus raced 86 yards for a touchdown. The Batavia defense then recorded a three-and-out, further swinging momentum into the Bulldogs' favor.
But on the subsequent drive, Nazareth came up with a big defensive stop. On 4th and 7 from the Roadrunners' 34, Oroni (17 of 35, 207 yards passing) dropped the snap but was able to scoop the ball up. However, the muff ruined the timing of the play and while his pass to tight end Jack Valente was completed, the Roadrunners tackled him three yards shy of the first-down marker.
"It was a tough break," Piron said. "I wish we could've executed better and been within a touchdown late in the game. But I'm very proud of our kids and how we battled."
Hughes' 23-yard field goal ended another 12-play Nazareth drive that made the score 31-14 at the 3:46 mark.
4Q: Batavia's Jackson Williams capped a lengthy scoring march with a 22-yard field goal that cut the Bulldogs' deficit to 31-17 with 7:34 remaining in regulation. Nazareth then embarked on a long drive of its own and got to the Batavia 5, but the Bulldogs held, and McCarthy was sacked by Cam Jones on 4th-and-goal as Racki passed up a field-goal try.
Batavia drove into Nazareth territory, but with 2:49 left Tyler Morris intercepted Oroni and scooted 56 yards for a touchdown.
"[Oroni] was scanning the out route. I read his eyes and just decided to jump it," said Morris.
However, Batavia countered with a 43-yard touchdown pass from Oroni to running back Art Taylor with 2:24 left. The Bulldogs' Evan Kopf then recovered the onside kick, but any hopes of a miraculous comeback were doused when Breven Reifsteck picked off Oroni on the next play.
"We'd make a big play and then they'd run it back," Racki said. "It was one big play after another. There were definitely a lot of momentum swings, but we got the W and advanced to the semifinals; that's a good thing."
A factor that contributed to the Roadrunners' win was that the defense held the Bulldogs' Taylor -- who entered the game with 1,293 rushing yards -- to 15 yards on 8 rushes.
After enjoying three consecutive home playoff games, Nazareth will play at Rolling Meadows (12-0) in the Class 7A semifinal round. The Mustangs, led by two-way lineman Nate Pedraza (Ball State commit), recorded 10 sacks in a 20-3 quarterfinal win at Wheaton-Warrenville South.
Game time is set for Saturday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m.