Naperville Central had been here before: down a couple touchdowns at home to a tough opponent from the South Side.
It turned out OK the last time for the Redhawks and it did this time, too.
Quarterback Conor Joyce and running back Kevin Clifford sparked an offensive revival in the second half as No. 10 Naperville Central beat No. 11 Brother Rice 34-21 Friday night in a Class 8A opener.
Naperville Central (8-2) plays the winner of Saturday’s Metea Valley-Waubonsie Valley game next weekend in the second round of the
state playoffs. No. 11 Brother Rice (6-4) heads to the Catholic League playoffs with a date and opponent to be determined.
For a half, it looked like the Crusaders would be the ones moving on in the state bracket. Like Marist on the same field in last year’s Class 8A semifinals, Rice had Naperville Central in a hole.
Alex Alarcon (26 of 42, 251 yards) completed his first 11 passes and ran for a pair of scores in the first nine minutes as the Crusaders opened a 14-0 lead.
Even after Joyce got Naperville Central on the board with a 24-yard touchdown pass one play after Daniel DelGrosso recovered a Rice
fumble, Alarcon came back with another score on a 10-yard pass to Marcus Jones.
But not to worry, Clifford said.
“Coach [Mike Stine] brought up Marist from last year,” Clifford said. “We were down the exact same score and there was no stopping the Redhawks.”
Clifford had nine yards on seven carries at halftime, but finished with 75 on 25 rushes.
“They were cutting us at the line of scrimmage, so we were stretching them outside,” Clifford said. “[That] let me get out in space. I did my thing from there.”
Meanwhile, Joyce (11 of 19, 155 yards passing; 14 carries, 48 yards) kept doing his thing. His 36-yard TD pass to Michael Kolzow pulled the Redhawks within 21-14 at 5:07 of the third. Clifford scored from seven yards out to tie it at 21 with 10:32 left and Joyce capped a 15-play, 52-yard drive with a one-yard sneak for a 27-21 lead at 2:59.
“We saw a lot of tendencies in their defense that we could really pick at and we trusted what we did – we ran the ball,” Clifford said. “The O-line really fought and I thought Conor played the game of his life.”
Rice still had life, but a snap over Alarcon’s head was scooped up and returned 33 yards for the clinching score by Central’s Bobby McMillen with 1:22 to play.
“That’s a great team,” Alarcon said. “We just didn’t finish.”
“We had our opportunities,” Rice coach Brian Badke said. “We didn’t execute, [had] a couple bad penalties in our end … a couple bad snaps. …
“They broke some tackles and got some big third-down conversions that, in the first half, we did a better job of shutting down,”