Wheaton North grinds out quarterfinal win over Willowbrook
Tyler O'Connor and the Wheaton North defense are not immune to allowing yards, or the occasional first down or two on a drive.
The scoreboard, though, is another story.
"We have that bend but don't break attitude," said O'Connor, Wheaton North's junior defensive back. "We go off offense wins games, defense wins championships."
That philosophy has served the Falcons well as the least-scored upon defense left in the Class 7A bracket. And it enabled them to grind out a tough 10-3 win Friday at Willowbrook in a Class 7A quarterfinal, sending Wheaton North into the semifinals for the first time since 2002.
It's the ninth time in 12 games that Wheaton North (11-1), which advances to face the Mount Carmel-Brother Rice winner, has allowed one score or fewer to an opponent. The Falcons moved on despite being outgained 221-161.
"We gave up a lot of underneath passes, [Joe] Tumilty is a great football player. Even though we were keying on him, he still made plays," Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski said. "We didn't give up anything over the top, which kept them to three points."
O'Connor, who kicked a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter for an early 3-0 Wheaton North lead, made the play of the game defensively late in the third quarter.
On Willowbrook's longest drive of the game, Tumilty converted a fourth down with a 15-yard reception from sophomore quarterback AJ Palicki that put the Warriors near the red zone.
But two plays later, O'Connor picked off Palicki in the end zone, preserving Wheaton North's lead.
"I just knew that I had to get an interception there," O'Connor said. "I saw our other safety Jackson Moore come over the top, he tipped the ball up, I was just waiting for it, because it was wet out I was just waiting for the ball to slip out of their hands."
The game, played in an off-and-on slow drizzle, featured 10 punts -- seven in the first half alone. Wheaton North scored all of its points off short fields.
Seth Kortenhoeven's 45-yard punt return set up O'Connor's field goal with 5:54 left in the first quarter. Adrian Guerrero's 37-yard field goal for Willowbrook tied it 3-3 with 8:40 left in the second quarter, but Wheaton North fell on an ensuing onsides kick attempt.
The Falcons made the decision pay, Mark Forcucci's 1-yard TD run on fourth-and-goal capping off a 10-play, 49-yard drive for a 10-3 lead 3:41 before half.
"The reality is we gave them a short field on that touchdown, and we gave them a long return on that field goal," Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth said. "That's two scores and we didn't capitalize and left points out there. We couldn't sustain anything, and penalties hurt us. We had opportunities and didn't capitalize."
Sophomore Walker Owens, who has teamed up with junior Luke Beedle to carry the load in the Wheaton North backfield since third-year starter Brayton Maske went down with a torn MCL in Week 6, had five carries on the touchdown drive.
He had four more on Wheaton North's final drive that ran out the clock, and Beedle had the last two.
"It was tough running, but it felt good," said Owens, who ran for 53 yards on nine carries. "At the end we were grinding out first downs, running out the clock and that's all we really needed to do."
Forcucci, the DuKane Conference Offensive Player of the Year, struggled at times in the poor conditions, missing on five of his first six passes. But he completed his last five, with clutch throws to Ross Dansdill and Kortenhoeven on the final possession.
"Credit to Mark, credit to the O-line for giving him time to get those balls off," Wardynski said. "We struggled a little bit getting down the field. Tonight we were a little deficient in the passing game. We have to get that going on if we're going to have a chance next week."
Willowbrook (8-4), in the quarterfinals for the fifth straight time, had got here by rallying from a nine-point halftime deficit in the second round against Moline.
The Warriors had their chances to do it again on their last possession, getting to the Wheaton North 40 on two Tumilty catches. But two holding penalties backed Willowbrook up, and it never got the ball back after punting with just less than five minutes left.
Pawlicki was 11-for-23 for 123 yards, Tumilty catching five of the passes.
"We were just super choppy offensively," Hildreth said. "We just could not solidify any flow and continue to move the chains. Big plays are great but as teams get better it's not going to be just big plays, you're going to have to get chunks and move the chains and at no point could we do that."