Given Mount Carmel’s rich tradition of running the veer-option en route to winning 10 state titles and Neuqua Valley’s senior running back Joey Rhattigan’s season-long exploits, running was the name of the game entering Saturday’s Class 8A state semifinal between the third-seeded Caravan and top-seeded Wildcats.
But someone forgot to tell that to the teams’ respective senior signal-callers: Mount Carmel’s Don Butkus and Neuqua Valley’s Dylan Andrew.
In a night where the run game was supposed to take center stage, it was the quarterbacks’ arms that played as big of a role as anything as Mount Carmel earned a 26-21 victory over Neuqua Valley to advance to the Class 8A state title game next week in Champaign.
The Caravan extended their winning streak to seven games and earned the program’s 16th trip to a state title game next week against fellow 12-1 Glenbard North in large part behind the exploits of Butkus through the air.
Contributing a seven-of-10 passing, 87-yard, two-touchdown (both going to senior Jason Gasser) first-half effort, Butkus kept his aerial momentum going in the second half by finding Gasser for a seven-yard score with 8:17 remaining in regulation that gave Mount Carmel (12-1) its first lead of the game at 20-14.
“We really focused on the run concept this week and we figured if we could shut that down … we were going to give up things in the passing (game),” Neuqua Valley senior strong safety Spencer Donahue said. “We knew that coming in we were gonna give up some in the pass [game] and they took advantage of it and it worked out for them and we couldn’t get back to it.”
Domer ran for 157 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries on the night, but it was the outing Butkus enjoyed (10-of-15 passing for 127 yards and three touchdowns) that ultimately proved to be the Wildcats’ undoing.
Doing his best to match Butkus throw-for-throw, especially with the Caravan’s front seven ready and geared to stop Rhattigan, Andrew did his best to keep his teammates in the game.
Completing 11-of-20 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, it was Andrew that gave his teammates what would turn out to be their final lead of the game at 14-7 after finding junior Mike Dudek for a 10-yard score and a 14-7 Wildcats’ lead with just under two minutes remaining in the first half.
“[Butkus] is a great quarterback. He came out and made some plays and I had to come up with some answers,” said Andrew, who completed eight of his nine first-half passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. “I think we did a good job of that for the most part. It’s just making plays. That’s all it is and they made more than we did (Saturday) night.”
Following Andrew’s connection with Dudek, who caught four passes for 97 yards and a touchdown, Neuqua Valley (12-1) watched Mount Carmel’s offense put up 19 unanswered points en route to taking a 26-14 advantage following a failed two-point conversion attempt that saw Butkus get hurt and need help just to get off the field with 1:10 remaining in regulation.
While Andrew was doing a yeoman’s job leading the Wildcats’ offense, Rhattigan saw his stellar high school career end on a sour note.
Limited to 25 yards on 11 carries by Mount Carmel’s defense in the first half, including being stuffed three straight times from the Caravan’s one-yard line during a Wildcats’ drive that lasted 14 plays and traveled 97 yards with nothing to show for it, Rhattigan finished with 77 yards on 20 carries—marking just the second time all year he was held under 100 yards.
“Dylan played very, very well [Saturday] night. Our passing game was working,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “Unfortunately, I felt we just ran out of time a little bit. We had a 99-yard drive and then stall out on the one-yard line, so you can look back on a million plays in a course of a game.
“They made a couple extra, a couple more plays than we did (Saturday) night.”