By Tim Cronin
DE KALB – Never scoff at an opponent.
Some St. Rita partisans did so coming into the Class 5A championship game at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University. After all, the Mustangs had dropped down from 7A and Rochester was two withdrawals from playing in Class 4A.
Certainly, the Mustangs would mop the FieldTurf with the Rockets.
Certainly not. Rochester, with one of the best passing duos in state playoff history and a defense that stuck to Mustangs like flypaper, administered a 42-28 defeat to St. Rita on Nov. 30 to claim its eighth start title, and first in 5A.
It was only that close thanks to a trio of late Mustangs scores; in reality, the Rockets controlled the contest when it mattered and the outcome was never in doubt after halftime.
“There are life lessons to be learned today,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said.
The combination of quarterback Clay Bruno and receiver Hank Beatty was toxic to the Mustangs. Ignoring a harsh crosswind and occasional showers, Bruno found Beatty 10 times for 201 yards in the first half alone – and Beatty hit Bruno on a 21-yard touchdown pass as well. Mustangs cornerbacks Kyle James and Tahrhon Haynes couldn’t keep the sure-handed Beatty under wraps, and Bruno was all but untouched in the pocket. Other defenses had the same problem with the duo this year.
“It’s not really magic,” Bruno said. “It’s a tribute to my linemen and receivers.”
Bruno completed 18 of 25 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns.
“He can chuck it on a dime,” said Beatty, who caught a dozen passes for 212 yards.
The killer was the Rockets’ propensity to convert on third-and-long, and for big plays. On their first series, Bruno found Beatty for 40 yards on third-and-17, key to setting up Rochester’s first touchdown. Their second score, with Beatty throwing a 25-yard strike to Bruno on a play-action fake, came on third-and-5.
They made it 21-0 on Bruno’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Beatty on third-and 8. And it became 28-7 on Rochester’s fifth series on a 22-yard Bruno to Beatty collaboration after a pair of third-down conversions that went for 18 and 16 yards.
“They made some big plays,” Kuska admitted.
That was only half the problem. Defensively, the Rockets ganged up on sophomore sensation Kaleb Brown, who came in averaging 149 yards per game on the ground. He was held to 18 yards on 21 carries.
“They sent in an extra linebacker and were coming off the edge,” Brown said.
His longest run of the day was eight yards
“They did a good job of taking away some of our interior run game,” Kuska said.
The Rockets outgained the Mustangs 444 yards to 247.
“We knew we had our work cut out for us,” Rochester coach Derek Leonard said.
Work, the Rockets did. It was 42-7 after Bruno’s fourth touchdown pass of the game with 9:02 remaining.
Only then did the Mustangs get untracked offensively, with Brian Johnson, who replaced Tommy Ulatowski at quarterback early in the second half, guiding the Mustangs to three touchdowns in the final 8:16. After Brown hit Nick Adent on a 53-yard score, Johnson scored on runs of 38 and 10 yards.
Johnson finished with 54 yards on five carries and completed 7 of 8 passes for 44 yards.
Ulatowski’s 22-yard run in the second quarter was St. Rita’s only score until the late outburst.
“It didn’t look great at some points, but they continued to fight all the way to the end,” Kuska said of his players.
St. Rita finished 10-4 after a 1-3 start. Rochester (13-1) takes home its eighth championship trophy in the last decade. The other seven titles were in 4A.
Kuska will have many key players returning in 2020, including Ulatowski and Johnson as a junior and senior, respectively. It’s a bonus to have two signal callers to pick from, especially when the dueling duo is as closely matched as Ulatowski and Johnson are.
That decision, however, is nine months away. By then, the pain of losing in the state title game should be healed.