VERNON HILLS — When Lake Zurich football coaches asked running back Ben Klett to take the team’s reins with the Bears’ playoff hopes on the line, he got the message.
Klett’s three second-half touchdowns shredded a Vernon Hills defense that contained him in the first half to lead Lake Zurich to a 38-21 victory — and playoff contention — Friday.
Carrying the ball 27 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns, Klett had the answer to erase Cougars leads three times, all in the second half.
“The coaches told me to put the team on my shoulders, and I did,” Klett said. “We had to score, and I knew I could not be tackled. I knew what I had to do.”
Holding Klett to 45 yards in the first half, Vernon Hills (5-4, 4-2) scored on its opening possession with Connor McNamara throwing for 59 yards and running for five more before Kyle Hull carried the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line. McNamara was 20-for-32 in the air for 267 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Cougars added a safety to take a 9-3 lead into the intermission and forced a three-and-out on Lake Zurich’s first possession of the second half. But their next drive stalled at the Bears’ 15.
That defensive stop changed the tempo for Lake Zurich (5-4, 3-3). Klett carried the ball on each snap of the ensuing 85-yard touchdown drive, scoring on a 49-yard run for his team’s first lead.
Vernon Hills answered on its next possession with McNamara putting his team ahead again on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kiwanne Durant. The 15-10 lead lasted 18 seconds before Klett’s 56-yard scoring run on the next snap.
McNamara led another drive to put Vernon Hills back in front, running for 12 yards and throwing for 53 more, including another scoring pass to Durant for 15 yards. That lead lasted 23 seconds before Lake Zurich quarterback Joey Lindstrom found Trevor Staley for 55 yards.
What had worked for the Cougars on defense lost its effectiveness, according to Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo.
“We tried to cheat them and put nine guys in the box,” Bellecomo said. “We were only able to do that for 2.5 quarters. They began to break us down.”
Less than 30 seconds after Lake Zurich took the lead for good, 24-21, early in the fourth quarter, Bears defensive back Nate Repplinger intercepted a McNamara pass on the Vernon Hills 42 and returned it to the 28. Klett ran 28 yards into the end zone on the next play for a 31-21 lead.
“I saw the quarterback looking [my way], the corner had the coverage and I was able to play the ball,” Repplinger said.
Going into the game with a 4-4 record, Lake Zurich needed the win to reach playoff eligibility. The Bears have gone to the postseason each year since 2006, winning the state title once, finishing second three times and reaching the semifinals the rest of the time, according to the school’s website.
“That had a lot to do with it,” Lake Zurich coach Dave Proffitt said of the school tradition that motivated his Bears. “We told them at the half it was up to them [to continue the season].”