For the longest time, the best line on Mount Carmel’s resume this season was a one-point loss in Week 1 to Philadelphia St. Joseph.
That’s not the case any longer. A week after knocking off 2013 Class 8A runner-up Loyola just to get into the IHSA playoffs, the Caravan eliminated defending Class 6A champion Batavia 21-16 Saturday afternoon in a 7A opener in Batavia.
Mount Carmel (6-4) goes to Belleville West (7-3) — a 24-7 winner over Bradley-Bourbonnais on Saturday — in the second round next week.
A.J. Lewis (21 carries, 92 yards) ran for a pair of 3-yard touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally Mount Carmel from a 10-7 deficit and Anthony Ries had 71 yards on 17 rushes.
The Caravan also had a 32-yard TD pass from Anthony Thompson to Avery Saffold. But Mount Carmel mostly tried to play keep-away — and generally succeeded — against a Batavia offense that averaged 38 points coming in.
“The big thing we wanted to do was eat up the clock,” Caravan coach Frank Lenti said. “We had a few long plays, but the idea was to first down them to death so we could keep their explosive offense off the field.”
Even when Batavia’s offense was on the field, Mount Carmel’s improving defense did a good job of limiting the damage.
“Our defense is really coming together,” junior linebacker Andrew Guerra said. “We had a lot of personnel changes, a lot of guys changing positions. Everybody is getting their positions down and we’re just coming out full speed.”
“I’m glad they’re starting to step up,” Lewis said of the defense. “We started slow … I feel it was just because of the lack of starters we had returning. I mean, when you lose Enoch [Smith Jr..], Christian [Searles] and Deonte Brown and Sam Connolly, it’s pretty hard to come back [strong] next year.
“But Andrew Guerra and Troy Weissenhofer and Deandre Greer are stepping up and they’re doing the job.”
That was what Batavia’s Zach Garrett (15 carries, 47 yards) saw as well.
“They’re a pretty good defense,” Garrett said of the Caravan. “I think we did all we could [Saturday]. A couple drives we did some good things, a couple we didn’t. …
“It was that close of a game. A couple breaks here or there, it could have been a different outcome.”
One of the breaks that went Mount Carmel’s way was a roughing-the-punter call that negated a change in possession on what proved to be the go-ahead drive. Five runs later — one for 13 yards by Ries, one by Thompson for 17 and three by Lewis for 14 — the Caravan was up 14-10 with 11:38 left.
The Caravan missed a 47-yard field goal try on its next possession, but Foster Williams blocked a Batavia punt to set up a first-and-goal at the Bulldogs’ 7-yard line. Lewis scored again two plays later for a 21-10 lead with 2:37 remaining.
That cushion came in handy when Kyle Niemiec (11-for-23, 100 yards) hit Blake Crowder with a 4-yard TD pass with 1:12 to play. Mount Carmel recovered the kickoff and ran out the clock.
“We started fast,” Lewis said. “Our saying is, ‘Start fast, keep playing fast the whole game and finish strong.’ … We showed spurts of it, but I felt for us to keep going in the playoffs … we have to make sure we finish everything. Some drives … we didn’t finish the way we should have. … That’s unacceptable for a Mount Carmel football team.”
Both teams scored on their first drive, Mount Carmel on Thompson’s TD pass to Saffold at 6:46 of the first quarter and Batavia on Niemiec’s 19-yard run with 3:51 left. It stayed 7-7 till the Bulldogs’ Howie Morgano kicked a 23-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with 4:42 left in the third.