Naperville Central turns up the defensive heat to shut down Neuqua Valley

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Coaches often talk about the great improvement a team can make from its first game to its second.

No. 19 Naperville Central did exactly that during Friday’s nonconference game at No. 15 Neuqua Valley.

The Redhawks, who fumbled four times and threw a pair of interceptions last weekend, didn’t commit a single turnover against the Wildcats while also coming up with several big plays on both sides of the football to earn a 19-0 victory.

“Last week we put the ball on the ground a lot, and we obviously talk about that every week,” Naperville Central coach Mike Stine said. “We really wanted to come out and be who we are. We felt it was about us and that we just had to go out and do what we felt we could do offensively.”

Naperville Central (1-1) opened the second half with a convincing 10-play drive that ate up nearly six minutes of the clock. They used big pass plays from Connor Joyce to Emmanuel Rugamba and Michael Kolzow (five catches, 108 yards) and several runs from Kevin Clifford (31 carries, 95 yards). Clifford ultimately barreled into the end zone for a 1-yard score and Connor Assalley’s PAT gave the Redhawks a 12-0 lead.

The Redhawks led 5-0 at halftime on a botched snap on a punt that linebacker Bobby McMillen turned into a safety in the final minute of the first quarter and on Assalley’s 34-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

“Last week we didn’t come out in the second half and get it done, so that was huge tonight,” Clifford said. “I think scoring that touchdown kind of killed (Neuqua Valley’s) morale. I was just really proud of our offensive line. They came out and executed in the mud.”

Neuqua Valley (0-2) wasn’t able to do much offensively, and particularly struggled in the second half. After converting one first down on their first possession of the third quarter, the Wildcats went three-and-out on their next two possessions and then finished with three consecutive interceptions.

“It starts with me,” Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “We have to find ways to move the ball into the end zone, and as offensive coordinator, I’ll take responsibility for that.”

One of the few mistakes the Redhawks made came on a bad snap on a punt with 1:14 remaining in the game. Instead of it allowing it to hurt them, though, the Redhawks answered with a big defensive play as Rugamba picked off a pass by Broc Rutter (10-of-22, 109 yards) and returned it for a 98-yard touchdown.

“We think we’re one of the fastest defenses in the state with our speed,” Naperville Central lineman Jack Walsh said. “I think we forced them to make a lot of their plays under pressure.”

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