By Tim Cronin
GURNEE – The whistles didn’t blow. On that omission, perhaps a season turned.
Warren led Brother Rice by a touchdown at the time, and the Blue Devils were looking at a third-and-29 quandary from their own 26-yard line late in the third quarter of the teams’ Class 8A semifinal game on Nov. 23.
The Blue Devils, their offense usually a thrill ride on par with nearby Six Flags Great America, had been largely kept in check by a gritty Crusaders defense. Then, Warren senior Derrick McLaughlin got loose, sprinting up the middle. Seemingly stopped four yards past the line of scrimmage, he got loose again and was tackled at the first down spot – or so it seemed – and fumbled to boot.
There, silence on the part of the referees played into the Blue Devils’ hands. Along came all-stater Christian Phillips, who had already scored once, to gobble up the bounding ball while running at full speed.
Phillips at full speed is a handful, and Rice, largely occupied with smothering McLaughlin, couldn’t catch him. He completed the final 45 yards of an improbable 74-yard touchdown play to give Warren a two-touchdown lead and the momentum they would carry through to a 28-0 victory to grab a berth in the 8A title game.
Warren will face fellow unbeaten Lincoln-Way East, a 24-7 victor over Marist in the other semifinal, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30 at Huskie Stadium on the Northern Illinois campus in DeKalb.
“He was down,” Rich coach Brian Badke said of McLaughlin on the tide-turning play. “These guys don’t blow whistles. I don’t know. All of a sudden, he keeps on going.”
Warren’s defense was everything it was touted to be in avenging last year’s quarterfinal loss to the Crusaders. The Blue Devils, who have allowed only 40 points this season, annexed their sixth shutout in 12 games.
Just when it seemed Rice – held to 170 yards and a half-dozen first downs – had gotten untracked, cornerback Josh Turner stepped up and turned sophomore Jack Lausch’s over-the-middle pass into an 87-yard pick-six. Turner dodged, eluded and weaved by potential tacklers to close the scoring.
It had been Rice’s only venture into the red zone all day.
“It was a slant route and he just jumped underneath it,” Lausch said.
“We had our opportunities,” Badke said. “When you do get those opportunities, you’ve got to capitalize against a good football team. We didn’t finish.”
Lausch passed for 99 yards, completing 7-of-26 passes. He was sacked four times and hounded at least a half-dozen more. He may have seen cornerback Juan Delacruz in his nightmares.
“They were good,” Lausch said of Warren’s pass rush. “I could have done a better job of staying in there, making some throws. But they brought it. They threw a lot of stunts at us, mixed it up a lot.”
McLaughlin had scored on an 18-yard run the series before that, so Lausch and company were staring at a 21-0 deficit when he tried to find a friend. He’d already hit Dwayne Moorehead, Willie Shaw and Kevin Phelan, the latter on fourth-and-10, stitching together Rice’s best sortie of the afternoon.
Phillips opened the scoring by hauling in an eight-yard pass from Trinate Jacobs in the final minute of the first half, a 24-minute session highlighted by crunching tackles and played almost exclusively between the 25 yard lines. But Jacobs hit Phillips on consecutive passes of 45 and 20 yards, and two plays later, found him again.
“It was a couple big plays,” Badke said. “We just weren’t able to get going offensively, and it’s a compliment to them. We knew they were going to be a great defense.”
Rice finishes 8-5, but with promise befitting a squad that started three sophomores and advanced to the semifinal round.
“This team has a lot of fight,” Lausch said. “This team started 5-4, and there were times during the season it was rock bottom. I’m glad of the way we fought back and came back up.”
The Crusaders made it to the 8A title game in 2018 with a senior-laden roster and had 11 new starters on offense this season. Badke both knows how to build, and rebuild.
“We’ve got 15 underclassmen, and I think it showed a little bit today,” Badke said. “We’re battle-tested, no doubt. To be a 24th seed and make it all the way to this point, it’s a testament to our kids and our coaching staff.”