Reserve quarterback, two-way players help ignite Loyola’s offense

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In its first two Catholic Blue football games, Loyola scored a total of 23 points.

With a new-look offense at home Saturday, the Ramblers beat St. Rita 38-14 to remain in contention for their fifth consecutive conference championship.

Loyola, ranked No. 5 by the Sun-Times, started senior Aidan Walsh at quarterback and seniors Cal Falkenhayn and Mark Nichol in the backfield against the No. 15 Mustangs.

The 6-2, 195-pound Walsh, who opened the season third on the depth chart and made his last start as a freshman, was at quarterback due to injuries to senior DJ Melsheimer and junior Emmett Clifford. While Falkenhayn and Nichol both are starters on defense, Loyola coach John Holecek said he finally “acquiesced” to his offensive coaches and played them on the other side of the ball in Week 8.

The result was one of Loyola’s best offensive games of the season. The Ramblers ran for 281 yards, more than 100 yards better than their single-game average of 176.5. Their 378 total yards were more than 50 yards greater than the season average of 325.5.

“I was pretty confident going into the game because the coaches put together a game plan for me,” said Walsh, who ran for a team-best 104 yards, threw for 113 and didn’t turn over the ball. “We had some new packages with Mark and Cal, and the coaches trusted me to make the right calls. I just did the best of my ability.”

Junior Dara Laja, a 5-8, 175-pounder, followed Walsh with 101 rushing yards, and the 6-0, 210-pound Nichol ran for 64 yards on 16 carries and scored three touchdowns. Known as a defensive lineman, Nichol, who had seven carries for 17 yards and three TDs prior to the St. Rita game, said the last time he was a featured running back was in eighth grade.

“I was very excited,” said Nichol, who found out at the start of last week he was a big part of the offense’s game plan. “I really enjoy helping out both areas as much as I can. I like the double role.”

According to Holecek, more than half of Loyola’s plays had three backs, a first for this season. Laja, Walsh and Nichol did most of the running, while the 6-2, 230-pound Falkenhayn, a standout linebacker, served as a lead blocker.

“Both [Nichol] and [Falkenhayn] are extremely physical, and we knew Aidan was a big strong runner,” Holecek said. “We thought it was a good change-up. We now have a bunch of different options and different looks on offense.

“It was something that had been in the system for a while, and it’s progressed throughout the year. I don’t want to play guys two ways, but they are physically gifted players.”

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