Aidan Walsh, Mark Nichol step in to power Loyola past St. Rita

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The outlook was as gray as the sky for Loyola Saturday afternoon.

St. Rita was in town, with a pair of offensive difference-makers in receiver Brandon Gaston and running back Tyre Lee. And with two quarterbacks out with injuries, the Ramblers were giving third-stringer Aidan Walsh his first varsity start.

But Loyola was confident, and with good reason. Its trademark defense was as good as ever and Walsh — with an assist from a new backfield lineup — didn’t look anything like a reserve.

The No. 9 Ramblers scored 21 points off seven takeaways and pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 38-14 Catholic League Blue win in Wilmette.

Loyola (7-1, 2-1) goes to Gately Stadium next week needing to beat Mount Carmel to earn at least a share of the Catholic Blue title for the fifth straight year. St. Rita (6-2, 1-2) had its own league championship hopes dashed and play spoiler itself when it tries to deny Brother Rice a title share in Week 9.

“We want to get going into the playoffs with some momentum,” Mustangs coach Todd Kuska said. “[A] 7-2 [record] can hopefully get us a home playoff game. That’s our goal now.”

There was no shortage of heroes for Loyola on Saturday. Mark Dowdle, who helped hold down Providence’s Notre Dame-bound Miles Boykin two weeks ago, did the same against Gaston except for one play.

That came in the third quarter, when the speedy receiver took a short pass from C.J. Weydeman and turned it into a 74-yard touchdown.

“It got in my head a little bit,” Dowdle said. “I was like, ‘They got one, OK. I’m going to battle back and make another.’”

The 6-3 senior cornerback, who recovered a St. Rita fumble in the first quarter, picked off Weydeman twice in the fourth quarter. The second set up an 11-yard touchdown run by John Saliba that made it 38-14 with 2:14 left.

Earlier in the fourth, Loyola had two one-yard touchdown runs by 6-foot, 210-pound senior Mark Nichol, a starting linebacker who ran 16 times for 62 yards in his first extensive action on offense this season.

“We needed something new. This new formation is getting it done,” said Nichol, who was joined in the backfield by regular running back Dara Laja (21 carries, 102 yards) and Cal Falkenhayn, another starting linebacker.

Loyola coach John Holecek hasn’t always been a fan of using players both ways. But, he said, “talent cannot be on the bench. Cal has been a running back his whole life. They’re both so physical and tough; Cal is a 220-pound monster. Those are the exceptions.”

Walsh, meanwhile, was an effective runner (20 carries, 86 yards) and passer (12 of 18, 113 yards) filling in for DJ Melsheimer (concussion) and Emmett Clifford (collarbone).

“I was a little nervous, but I watched a lot of film in practice and at home and I was prepared for anything,” Walsh said.

Nichol’s five-yard touchdown run on Loyola’s first possession was the only score of the first half. Things picked up in the third quarter, starting with Ryan Zinkula’s 45-yard interception return with 10:30 left.

Gaston’s TD catch cut the deficit to 14-7 at 9:19 and Mike Kurzydlowski kicked a 24-yard field goal for Loyola with 6:00 left.

Lee (nine carries, 98 yards) went 81 yards for a score on the next play from scrimmage, pulling St. Rita within 17-14. But the Mustangs had four turnovers and two first downs the rest of the way.

“It snowballed on us,” Todd Kuska said. “We were fortunate to get a couple breaks in turnovers for us and we didn’t take advantage of it. We gave it right back to them; they did [take advantage].”

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