Eagles manage to squeeze past high-powered Joliet Central
Instead of the usual whip, chair and gun, Sandburg used a forced fumble, interception and unexpectedly robust offense to do some Tiger-taming Saturday afternoon.
The big cats in question hailed from Joliet West, and the danger they presented to the Eagles was a ferocious passing attack. Tigers quarterback Anthony DiNardo completed 32 of his 55 throws for a whopping 452 yards, numbers that would normally spell disaster for defense-oriented Sandburg.
“I’m an old-school guy who likes games [with] 14-10 or 17-14 [scores],” Eagles coach Dave Wierzal said. “When you’re doing that last guy-with-the-ball-wins [thing], that’s not what I want.
“We knew we were facing a team that could generate a lot of offense. Our concern was that it would turn into a shootout and we’d have to outscore them.”
That’s exactly how the SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue contest shook out, but much to Wierzal’s surprise, his guys were equal to the task. In fact, they were a little better than their high-powered hosts.
When Sean Leland connected with Lavelle Johnson on an 18-yard touchdown pass with less than eight minutes remaining in the game, the Eagles owned a 36-20 lead. The scoring toss was Leland’s second one to Johnson and third of the day, and part of a 450-yard offensive performance by the visitors.
“I know other schools do this, but this is really new territory for us,” Wierzal said of his squad’s impressive output. “I thought it would not be possible — how could it be?”
The final Leland-to-Johnson hookup was critical, as it gave Sandburg enough cushion to survive another jolt from Joliet West. The Tigers then threatened to pull even in the closing moments when they reached the Eagles’ 8-yard line, but Sandburg repelled the challenge.
It did so by forcing a fumble and pushing Joliet West backward more than 20 yards. Matt Taylor’s big play didn’t get the ball away from the Tigers, but it did knock DiNardo out of commission. His backup then had his first — and only — pass swiped by Adam Nash, which sealed the deal on the Eagles’ wild 36-28 win.
“It’s amazing how stressful it is and [also] how exhilarating it is,” Wierzal said of his team’s narrow escape. “In one respect, it’s probably good for the players because they have to learn to fight through challenges. It’s teaching the importance of playing four quarters and knowing anything’s possible.
“On the other hand, it’s aging myself and my staff. This was way more exciting than I wanted.”
The excitement began right away, as the Tigers hit paydirt three plays into their initial series. Niko Messino (12 catches, 263 yards) did the honors by hauling in DiNardo’s 54-yard pass.
Sandburg (3-1, 2-0) nearly offered an immediate response, but its journey ended on a fumble inside Joliet West’s 1, an occurrence Wierzal described as “a little bit scary.” But a punt return to the Tigers’ 28 a bit later led to Leland’s first scoring toss to Johnson.
From there, the two teams engaged in plenty of give-and-take. Each squad squandered a trek into the other’s red zone during the second stanza, but the Eagles entered halftime in front by three after Dan Trentacoste tallied on a 16-yard dash and Jonathan Milazzo kicked a 35-yard field goal.
A 66-yard Leland-to-Rasheed Carney bomb increased Sandburg’s edge to 23-13 at the start of the third quarter, but as Wierzal feared, the scoring was far from over. Worse, he still wondered how long the Eagles could keep matching Joliet West blow for blow on offense.
“In a game like this, we couldn’t afford to go three-and-out [very often],” he said.
Of course, that’s what proceeded to happen to Sandburg on back-to-back third-period series, between which DiNardo fired a 34-yard touchdown pass to Dyllon Goyette to draw the Tigers within 23-20. The Eagles did catch Joliet West napping with a fake punt that resulted in a 21-yard gain for Graham Hevel, but a fumble short-circuited that possession just after the visitors crossed midfield.
Finally, Sandburg regained its footing and Leland capped an 80-yard drive with his 1-yard keeper. Then after a shanked Tigers punt gave them good field position, the Eagles struck again on Leland’s 18-yard collaboration with Johnson with 7:46 remaining.
“That was the first I felt, for a moment, that we were in good shape,” Wierzal said. “This is where I tend to be conservative [in play-calling], but the thought was that wasn’t going to be the final score.
“It turned out to be way too much time [left], and the last part of this game was so outrageously eventful.”
Sure enough, DiNardo’s 13-yard TD pass to Goyette closed the gap to 36-28 and set the stage for the crazy finish. Joliet West used 17 plays to position itself inside Sandburg’s 10 before disaster hit in the form of the forced fumble and Nash’s second pickoff of the game.
Nash also made nine tackles for an Eagles prevention group that was on the field for 87 plays. Marty Micek (six solo stops, five assists, one sack), Trentacoste (six solos, three assists, one sack), Tamonte Brown (five solos, one assist), Mike Howard (four solos, five assists), Hevel (four solos, four assists) and Taylor (three solos, one assist, forced fumble) were other principal figures for Sandburg on that side of the ball.
Although he didn’t score any points, Brian Langowski was an offensive standout as he rushed for a career-high 187 yards on 27 carries and caught a couple passes for 23 more yards. The Eagles averaged 6.8 yards while running 66 total plays.
“They’ve all been barn burner-type games,” Wierzal said, referring to Sandburg’s first four outings of the season. “The stats are ridiculous. We’re 3-1, but saying we’re 3-1 doesn’t do justice to any of these games.
“How many games can we handle like this? The reality is we’ll handle however many we have to.”
The Eagles host Joliet Central for homecoming Friday night at Seliga Field.
Sandburg 7 9 7 13 - 36
Joliet West 13 0 7 8 - 28
First downs 25 29
Yds. rushing 267 63
Yds. passing 183 452
Total yds. 450 515
Att./comp. 14-7 55-32
Fumbles/lost 3-2 1-0
Had intercepted 0 2
Penalties/yds. 8-46 11-106
Punts/avg. 1-32.0 3-31.0
JW -- Niko Messino, 54-yd. pass from Anthony DiNardo (DiNardo kick)
CS -- Lavelle Johnson, 28-yd. pass from Sean Leland (kick failed)
JW -- Messino, 9-yd. pass from DiNardo (kick failed)
CS -- Jonathan Milazzo, 35-yd. field goal
CS -- Dan Trentacoste, 16-yd. run (Milazzo kick)
CS -- Rasheed Carney, 66-yd. pass from Leland (Milazzo kick)
JW -- Dyllon Goyette, 34-yd. pass from DiNardo (DiNardo kick)
CS -- Leland, 1-yd. run (kick blocked)
CS -- Johnson, 18-yd. pass from Leland (Milazzo kick)
JW -- Goyette, 13-yd. pass from DiNardo (Messino, pass from DiNardo)
Sandburg Rushing: Langowski 27-181, Johnson 4-31, Trentacoste 2-21, Hevel 1-21, Muno-Kohn 9-15, Leland 7-(-2). Passing: Leland 14-7-183. Receiving: Johnson 2-46, Langowski 2-23, Carney 1-66, Marudas 1-37, Muno-Kohn 1-11.