By Jason Maholy
The Richards defense wouldn’t typically agree holding an opposing offense to 34 points was indicative of a good day.
How one defines “good day,” however, is all a matter of perspective.
When said offense is scoring 56 points per game and is coming off a 78-point performance in the first-round of the playoffs, limiting them to 22 points below their average is nothing short of outstanding.
The Bulldogs monkey-wrenched the high-flying Peoria offense with an attacking defense, Leshon Williams rushed for 301 yards and three touchdowns, and Richards defeated the Lions, 42-34, to advance to the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs.
The Bulldogs will play at top-seeded East St. Louis this Saturday.
Senior defensive back Anthony Perry played a major role in the D’s effort, picking off two passes including one he returned 101 yards for a touchdown for arguably the most pivotal play of the game.
With Richards leading 7-6 and Peoria deep in Bulldogs’ territory, Perry jumped a route and snagged the ball a yard deep in the end zone, then took off with nothing but open field in front of him. The 101 yards is unofficially the longest interception return for a touchdown in program history.
“I knew the ball was coming to me; I knew the ball was coming to [Lions wideout Kaevion Mack], so I was ready,” Perry said. “I didn’t know if I was in the end zone or not, but I said, ‘I’m going to take this,’ and I took it.”
Williams, who spent his evening making an impression – and at times impressions of Lions’ defenders into the nearly frozen turf – liked what he saw from his fellow senior.
“He played a hell of a game, the MVP goes to him. That’s a momentum-changer right there,” he said of the pick-six. “They’ve got a very high-scoring offense, so I think Tony came in with a lot on his shoulders, and he played very well today. He stayed focus and put his head down and took the task straight on.”
For Richards coach Tony Sheehan, the play turned the tide.
“That’s huge, that’s the game right there,” he said. “They had us kind of reeling.”
As proud as Sheehan is of Perry, both for that play and for how much he has grown this season, Williams is still “The Man.” The Iowa commit was playing in only his second game since returning from an ankle injury he sustained in a Week 3 loss to Hillcrest. He broke several long runs and rarely went down on first contact, punishing Peoria defenders who tried to stop him.
“Nothing phases him,” Sheehan said. “He’s so even-keeled, but God, is he good. And thank God he’s on our team. He steps up when it’s needed.”
Sheehan said the 301-yard performance ranks up there with any he’s seen during his years as a Richards player or coach.
That’s up there with [All-State wide receiver Kenny] Carrington, and [Sebastian] Castro’s last year against Yorkville when he just kind of took over,” he added. “I know I’m young, but I’ve been around and I’ve watched a lot. He might be the best that’s ever toted the rock around here.”
Williams said he is playing at “80 percent” as he works his way back from injury. That’s unfortunate news for any defense that must face him at 100 percent. The question is, will he be at that level when the Bulldogs face East St. Louis this Saturday with a berth in the state semifinals on the line?
“The next game is going to be a grinder, but we’re all together,” he said. “All of Illinois may be against us, but you know, as brothers we go into the fight and we feel like we can win it.”